The constitution designates Islam as the state religion but upholds the principle of secularism. It prohibits religious discrimination and provides for equality for all religions. On March 12, a Bangladesh Speedy Trial Tribunal convicted and sentenced to death four Muslim defendants of the group Jamaatul Mujahidin Bangladesh (JMB), a violent extremist group accused in the 2016 killing of a Hindu priest. The government continued to provide guidance to imams throughout the country on the content of their sermons in its stated effort to prevent militancy and to monitor mosques for “provocative” messaging. Members of religious minorities, including Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians, who were sometimes also members of ethnic minorities, stated the government remained ineffective in preventing forced evictions and land seizures stemming from land disputes. The government continued to deploy law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considered possible targets for violence. In January, the Election Commission rescheduled local Dhaka elections after students and faith groups protested scheduling the elections during a Hindu festival.
In October, media reported a crowd of several hundred persons beat to death a Muslim visiting a mosque after a rumor spread that he desecrated a Quran in Lalmonirhat District, Rangpur Division near the country’s northern border. The man’s body was then set on fire. In July, according to press and Sufi Muslims, a Sufi follower was stalked and killed outside a Sufi shrine in Gazipur. In July, press reported local residents exhumed the body of an Ahmadi Muslim infant buried in an Islamic cemetery and dumped the body at the side of the road in protest of the infant’s burial, because they considered her family to be “infidels”; the body was later buried in a government cemetery. According to leaders in the Hindu community and media, in November, a crowd of several hundred looted, vandalized, and set on fire Hindu family homes in Cumilla District after rumors spread that local Hindu residents supported Charlie Hebdo’s publication in France of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, initially published in 2015 and reprinted in September. The Christian Welfare Trust and other human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report harassment, communal threats of physical violence, and social isolation for Christians who converted to Christianity from Hinduism and Islam. The Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council (BHBCUC) said communal violence against minorities continued throughout the year, including during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In meetings with government officials, civil society members, religious leaders, and in public statements, the U.S. Ambassador, other U.S. embassy representatives, and the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom spoke out against acts of violence in the name of religion and encouraged the government to uphold the rights of minority religious groups and foster a climate of tolerance. During the year, the United States provided nearly $349 million in assistance for programs to assist overwhelmingly Muslim Rohingya refugees from Burma and host communities. Embassy public outreach programs encouraging interfaith tolerance among religious groups continued during the year, including an event held on November 24.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 162.7 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2013 government census, the most recent official data available, Sunni Muslims constitute 89 percent of the population and Hindus 10 percent. The remainder of the population is predominantly Christian, mostly Roman Catholic, and Theravada-Hinayana Buddhist. The country also has small numbers of Shia Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, Baha’is, animists, agnostics, and atheists. Leaders from religious minority communities estimate their respective numbers to be between a few thousand and 100,000 adherents.
Ethnic minorities concentrated in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) and northern districts generally practice a non-Islamic faith. The Garo in Mymensingh are predominantly Christian, as are some of the Santal in Gaibandha. Most Buddhists are members of the indigenous (non-Bengali) populations of the CHT. Bengali and ethnic minority Christians live in communities across the country, with relatively high concentrations in Barishal City and Gournadi in Barishal District, Baniarchar in Gopalganj District, Monipuripara and Christianpara in Dhaka City, and in the cities of Gazipur and Khulna.
The largest noncitizen population is Rohingya, nearly all Muslim. Human Rights Watch estimates approximately 1,500 Rohingya in the refugee settlements are Christians; approximately 450 are Hindu. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, more than one million Rohingya refugees fled Burma in successive waves since the early 1990s. Most recently, in August 2017, approximately 740,000 Rohingya fleeing violence in Burma took refuge in the country. Nearly all who arrived during the 2017 influx sought shelter in and around the refugee settlements of Kutupalong and Nayapara in Cox’s Bazar District.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
According to the constitution, “The state religion of the Republic is Islam, but the State shall ensure equal status and equal rights in the practice of the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and other religions.” The constitution also stipulates the state should not grant political status in favor of any religion. It provides for the right to profess, practice, or propagate all religions “subject to law, public order, and morality,” and states religious communities or denominations have the right to establish, maintain, and manage their religious institutions. The constitution states no one attending any educational institution shall be required to receive instruction in, or participate in ceremonies or worship pertaining to, a religion to which he or she does not belong.
Under the penal code, statements or acts made with a “deliberate and malicious” intent to insult religious sentiments are subject to fines or up to two years in prison. Although the code does not further define this prohibited intent, the courts have interpreted it to include insulting the Prophet Muhammad. The criminal code allows the government to confiscate all copies of any newspaper, magazine, or other publication containing language that “creates enmity and hatred among the citizens or denigrates religious beliefs.” The law applies similar restrictions to online publications. While there is no specific blasphemy law, authorities use the penal code, as well as a section of the Information and Communication Technology Act and the Digital Security Act, to charge individuals for acts perceived to be a slight against Islam. The Information and Communication Act criminalizes several forms of online expression, including “obscene material,” “expression(s) likely to cause deterioration of law and order,” and “statements hurting religious sentiments.” The Digital Security Act likewise criminalizes publication or broadcast of “any information that hurts religious values or sentiments,” by denying bail and increasing penalties of up to 10 years in prison.
The constitution prohibits freedom of association if an association is formed for the purpose of “destroying religious harmony”, the peaceful coexistence of religious communities, or creating discrimination on religious grounds.
Individual houses of worship are not required to register with the government. Religious groups seeking to form associations with multiple houses of worship, however, must register as NGOs with either the NGO Affairs Bureau (NGOAB) if they receive foreign assistance for development projects or with the Ministry of Social Welfare if they do not. The law requires the NGOAB to approve and monitor all foreign-funded projects. The NGOAB Director General has the authority to impose sanctions on NGOs for violating the law, including fines of up to three times the amount of the foreign donation, or closure of the NGO. NGOs are also subject to penalties for “derogatory” comments about the constitution or constitutional institutions (i.e., the government). Expatriate staff must receive a security clearance from the National Security Intelligence, Special Branch of Police, and Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, although the standards for this clearance are not transparent.
Registration requirements and procedures for religious groups are the same as for secular associations. Registration requirements with the Ministry of Social Welfare include certifying the name being registered is not taken, and providing the bylaws/constitution of the organization; a security clearance for leaders of the organization from the National Security Intelligence; minutes of the meeting appointing the executive committee; a list of all executive committee and general members and photographs of principal officers; work plan; copy of the deed or lease of the organization’s office and a list of property owned; a budget; and a recommendation by a local government representative.
Requirements to register with the NGOAB are similar.
Family law concerning marriage, divorce, and adoption contains separate provisions for Muslims, Hindus, and Christians. These laws are enforced in the same secular courts. A separate civil family law applies to mixed-faith families or those of other faiths or no faith. The family law of the religion of the two parties concerned governs their marriage rituals and proceedings. A Muslim man may have as many as four wives, although he must obtain the written consent of his existing wife or wives before marrying again. A Christian man may marry only one woman.
Hindu men may have multiple wives. Officially, Hindus have no options for divorce, although informal divorces do occur. Hindu women may inherit property under the law. Buddhists are subject to the same laws as Hindus. Divorced Hindus and Buddhists may not legally remarry. Divorced men and women of other religions and widowed individuals of any religion may remarry. Marriage between members of different religious groups occurs under civil law. To be legally recognized, Muslim marriages must be registered with the state by either the couple or the cleric performing the marriage; however, some marriages are not. Registration of marriages for Hindus and Christians is optional, and other faiths may determine their own guidelines.
Under the Muslim family ordinance, a Muslim man may marry women of any Abrahamic faith; however, a Muslim woman may not marry a non-Muslim. Under the ordinance, a widow receives one-eighth of her husband’s estate if she is his only wife, and the remainder is divided among the children; each female child receives half the share of each male child. Wives have fewer divorce rights than husbands. Civil courts must approve divorces. The law requires a Muslim man to pay a former wife three months of alimony, but these protections generally apply only to registered marriages; unregistered marriages are by definition undocumented and difficult to substantiate. Authorities do not always enforce the alimony requirement even in cases involving registered marriages.
Alternative dispute resolution is available to all citizens, including Muslims, for settling out of court family arguments and other civil matters not related to land ownership. With the consent of both parties, lawyers may be identified to facilitate the arbitration, the results of which may be used in court.
Fatwas may be issued only by Muslim religious scholars, and not by local religious leaders, to settle matters of religious practice. Fatwas may neither be invoked to justify meting out punishment, nor may they supersede existing secular law.
Religious studies are compulsory and are part of the curriculum for grades three through 10 in all public government-accredited schools. Private schools do not have this requirement. Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian students receive instruction in their own religious beliefs, although the teachers are not always adherents of the students’ faith.
The code regulating prisons allows for observance of religious commemorations by prisoners, including access to extra food on feast days or permission to fast for religious reasons. The law does not guarantee prisoners regular access to clergy or regular religious services, but prison authorities may arrange special religious programs for them. Prison authorities are required to provide prisoners facing the death penalty access to a religious figure from a faith of their choice before execution.
The Restoration of Vested Property Act allows the government to return property confiscated from individuals, mostly Hindus, whom it formerly declared enemies of the state. In the past, authorities used the act to seize property abandoned by minority religious groups, especially Hindus, who fled the country, particularly following the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965.
According to law, if a lower court orders the death penalty, the High Court examines the verdict for confirmation of the punishment.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On March 12, according to media reports, a Bangladeshi Speedy Trial Tribunal convicted and sentenced to death four Muslim members of JMB, a violent extremist group, for their involvement in the 2016 killing of a Hindu priest. The victim, Jogeshwar Roy, chief priest at Sri Swanta Gouria Monastery, was stabbed to death while organizing prayers at the temple.
At year’s end, the death sentence of seven individuals for their roles in the July 2016 killing of 22 mostly non-Muslim individuals at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka remained on appeal with the High Court. In November 2019, a Bangladesh Special Tribunal convicted and sentenced the seven, while acquitting an eighth defendant.
Legal proceedings against six suspects allegedly involved in the 2015 killing of atheist blogger Avijit Roy continued at year’s end. The trial began in the Anti-Terrorism Tribunal in April 2019. In March, the trial proceedings stalled due to the absence of witnesses. In late March, authorities closed all courts until August due to the coronavirus outbreak, when the trial resumed. In November, two more witnesses provided testimony to the court, bringing the total witnesses to 24.
There was no progress in the court case regarding a 2016 attack on Hindu individuals, homes, and temples in Brahmanbaria District; victims expressed frustration to media over the continued investigation into the incident.
Biplob Chandra Baidya, a Hindu man, remained imprisoned since October 2019 for anti-Islam messages posted to his Facebook account, which he stated was hacked. Rioters vandalized homes and religious temples following the postings.
According to press reports, in January, local authorities arrested a Baul folk singer, Shariat Sarker, for derogatory comments against religion and “hurting religious sentiments,” criminal offenses under the law. Baul singing incorporates elements of Tantra, Sufism, Vaishnavism, and Buddhism. Authorities arrested Sarker following a protest by more than 1,000 individuals and a complaint to police by a Muslim cleric. Authorities denied Sarkar bail at the first hearing of his case at the Tangail District Court on January 29. According to press reports, Sarkar spent six months in jail. In February, a lawyer accused another Baul folk singer, Rita Dewan, of making derogatory comments against Allah during a musical competition. After a video recording of the song went viral, she apologized. Criminal charges were brought against Dewan that same month, and following a police investigation, a court issued a warrant for her arrest in December.
In March, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights requested the government to “urgently revise the Digital Security Act, to ensure that it is in line with international human rights laws and that it provides for checks and balances against arbitrary arrest, detention, and other undue restrictions of the rights of individuals to the legitimate exercise of their freedom of expression and opinion.”
Human rights organizations reported a decrease in the use of extrajudicial fatwas by village community leaders and local religious leaders to punish individuals for perceived “moral transgressions” during the year. In 2019, there was a reported 54 percent decrease in reported cases of fatwa and village out-of-court arbitrations overall. Media attributed the decline to civil society activism. Fatwas, however, continued throughout the year, including a November edict issued against a sculpture honoring Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the country.
Although most mosques were independent of the state, the government continued to influence the appointment and removal of imams and provide guidance on the content of their sermons to imams throughout the country through the Islamic Foundation. This included issuing written instructions highlighting certain Quranic verses and quotations of the Prophet Muhammad. Religious community leaders again said imams in all mosques usually continued the practice of avoiding sermons that contradicted government policy. The government maintained instructions to mosques to denounce extremism.
According to the Ministry of Land’s 2018-2019 report, the most recent figures available, as of 2018, authorities had adjudicated 26,791 of 114,749 property-restitution cases filed under the Restoration of Vested Property Act. Of these judgments, the owners, primarily Hindus, won 12,190 of the cases, recovering 10,255 acres of land, while the government won the remaining 14,791 cases. Media reports, rights activists, and the BHBCUC attributed the slow return of land seized under relevant legislation from Hindus who had left for India to judicial inefficiency and general government indifference.
Freedom House’s 2020 report assessed religious minorities remained underrepresented in politics and state agencies.
Religious minorities continued to state that religious minority students sometimes were unable to enroll in religion classes because of an insufficient number of religious minority teachers for mandatory religious education classes. In these cases, school officials generally allowed local religious institutions, parents, or others to hold religious studies classes for such students outside school hours and sometimes exempted students from the religious education requirement.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs had a budget of 16.93 billion taka ($199.2 million) for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, which covers July 2020-June 2021. The budget included 14.25 billion taka ($167.6 million) allocated for development through various autonomous religious bodies. The government provided the Islamic Foundation, administered by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, 8.12 billion taka ($95.5 million). The Hindu Welfare Trust received 1.435 billion taka ($16.9 million), and the Buddhist Welfare Trust received 46.8 million taka ($551,000) of the total development allocation. While the Christian Welfare Trust did not receive development funding from the 2020-2021 budget, it received seven million taka ($82,400) to run its office.
Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and members of other minority religious communities, who are also sometimes members of ethnic minority groups, continued to report property and land ownership disputes and forced evictions, including by the government, which remained unresolved at year’s end. Some human rights activists said it was often difficult to determine whether these disputes and evictions were a result of deliberate government discrimination against religious minorities or of government inefficiency. The government continued construction projects on land traditionally owned by indigenous communities in the Moulvibazar and Modhupur forest areas. According to minority religious associations, such disputes occurred in areas near new roads or industrial development zones, where land prices had recently increased. They also stated local police, civil authorities, and political leaders enabled property appropriation for financial gain or shielded politically influential property appropriators from prosecution. Some human rights groups continued to attribute lack of resolution of some of these disputes to ineffective judicial and land registry systems and the targeted communities’ insufficient political and financial clout, rather than to government policy disfavoring religious or ethnic minorities. Indigenous groups in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, in particular, have large communities of Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians. A portion of these communities speak tribal languages and do not speak Bangla, making it difficult to access government registrations and services and further disenfranchising these groups.
The government continued to place law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considered potential targets for violence, including the Hindu festival of Durga Puja, celebrations during the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter, and the Buddhist festival of Buddha Purnima. During the year, the government assisted places of worship implement COVID-19 precautions during major festivals.
President Abdul Hamid continued to host receptions to commemorate each of the principal Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian holidays and emphasized the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and respect for religious minorities. In January, the Election Commission rescheduled local Dhaka elections after students and faith groups protested scheduling the election during a Hindu festival.
In January, the government said it would lift education restrictions for young Rohingya refugees. According to Minister of Foreign Affairs AK Abdul Momen, “We don’t want a lost generation of Rohingya. We want them to have education. They will follow Myanmar curricula.” Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all schools in the country remained closed beginning in March.
In September, Minister of Education Dipu Moni participated in an interreligious gathering on education, resilience, respect, and inclusion promoting what she termed the country’s history of religious harmony and tolerance for all faiths.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In October, according to police and local reports, a crowd of several hundred persons carrying sticks beat to death Abu Yunus Md Shahidunnabi Jewel and then set his body on fire. According to local press accounts, Jewel and a companion visited a mosque while away from his hometown, and while viewing the mosque’s Quran and Hadith, the Quran fell to the ground. A rumor quickly spread that Jewel had desecrated the sacred text. After a crowd attacked Jewel and his companion, officials attempted to protect them in the local government office. The crowd, however, broke into the office and grabbed Jewel. Although his companion successfully fled to the rooftop, Jewel was beaten to death. After Jewel was killed, according to eyewitnesses and video clips, the crowd burned his body while chanting, “Nara E Takbeer Allahu Akbar,” loosely translated as “Shout out loud, God is greatest.” The crowd also attacked law enforcement officers, and police opened fire in what was described as a measure to bring the situation under control, although no casualties were reported. Police authorities formed a government human rights investigation committee team that found after three days of review no evidence Jewel desecrated the Quran.
In late July, according to reports by Sufi leadership and a local media outlet, a Sufi follower named Soheil was stabbed to death in Gazipur, Dhaka. A local media report said criminals noticed Sohail outside a Sufi shrine, followed him, tied his arms and legs, then stabbed him in the stomach and disemboweled him. JMB claimed responsibility and published an online video of the killing. The following morning, the killers tied a brick to Sohail’s body and threw it over the Fakir Majnu Shah Bridge into the Shitalakhya River. While interrogating suspected JMB militants, the Dhaka Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit uncovered this incident and attempted to recover Sohail’s remains. According to Sufi leadership, Sohail was known for selling religious objects and conducting spiritual healings and had the nickname “Maizbhandar Sohail,” linking him with one of the major Sufi shrines in Bangladesh and potentially making him a target. Following the admission, the crime unit included this incident in its investigation into the JMB militants.
Also in July, major news outlets reported the exhuming and subsequent dumping of an Ahmadi Muslim infant’s body on the roadside in Brahmanbaria District. In a public statement, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community said the infant was born prematurely and died three days after birth. The bereaved family had buried the infant in a government cemetery, which according to the media reports caused local residents to become infuriated, not believing it appropriate to bury an Ahmadi Muslim’s body in a government cemetery for Muslims. After local residents exhumed the infant’s body, law enforcement responded to the incident and interviewed both the local residents and the family. Following intervention by law enforcement, the family agreed to rebury the infant in a separate Ahmadi cemetery. Human rights groups not associated with Ahmadiyya Islam termed the incident a “crude example of violence against religious minorities and abuse of human rights.”
According to the BHBCUC, communal attacks against ethnic and religious minorities occurred throughout the year, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. The BHBCUC counted 17 deaths in religious and ethnic minority communities between March and September. In June, the Bangladesh chapter of the World Hindu Federation released a press statement detailing a series of 30 incidents against Hindus in May. These included as many as four incidents in which Hindus were killed, according to the federation. The report also noted incidents of temple vandalism, forced conversion, rapes, and abductions of Hindu girls and women. In November, protesters demonstrated in Dhaka, Chattogram, and other parts of the country against communal attacks on minority religious communities. Saying government actions were not enough, protesters demanded tough action and accountability for perpetrators who they stated were harming religious harmony in the country.
In November, according to Hindu activist groups and widely reported in media, a Muslim crowd burned, looted, and vandalized Hindu family homes in Cumilla District, Chattogram Division. Local press outlets reported the crowd was incited by rumors that local Hindu residents supported the publication in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed, initially published in 2015 and reprinted in France in September. In remarks to the press, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan promised “stern, punitive actions” against the culprits and increased police presence in the affected village following the attack. By the end of the year, police arrested 16 suspects in connection with the violence.
According to press reports, in January, unknown persons attacked several Rohingya Christian families at the Kutupalong Maga refugee camp in Cox’s Bazaar. Although the reasons for the attack were unknown, one of the Christian refugees said intolerance against the Christian faith was the cause. According to Refugee Relief and Reparation Commissioner Mahbub Alam Talukder, 25 Christian families were transferred to another camp following the attack.
According to media reports, in July, individuals destroyed and forcefully removed the bamboo fence bordering a 200-year-old Hindu temple to the god Shiva and privately owned land in Dighirjan Village of Pirojpur District, in an attempt to take possession of the land. The landowner said no arrests or charges were made in connection with this incident.
The Christian Welfare Trust and other human rights NGOs continued to report harassment, communal threats of physical violence, and social isolation for converts to Christianity from Islam and Hinduism. The NGOs said individuals commonly associated a person’s faith with his or her surname. In spite of constitutional guarantees protecting an individual’s right to change faiths, according to the Christian Welfare Trust, when someone’s professed faith deviated from the faith tradition commonly linked with his or her surname, particularly if the professed faith was Christianity, harassment, threats, and social isolation could ensue.
NGOs continued to report tensions in the CHT between the predominantly Muslim Bengali settlers and members of indigenous groups, primarily Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian, largely over land ownership. In October, the Mro tribe, a majority Buddhist group, protested the development of a tourist hotel on Chimbuk Hill, Bandabarban, stating the project would displace tens of thousands of Mro from their ancestral land. According to NGO and press reports, the Mro acquiesced to handing over 20 acres of land believing it would be used for cultivation purposes. However, they later discovered an agreement between the Army Welfare Trust, a fund for Bangladesh Army officials, and a private Bangladesh company to construct a high-end hotel. The Mro said they were deceived when discussing the intended use of the property and did not relinquish their rights to the land.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy representatives regularly met with officials from the Office of the Prime Minister, Ministry of Religious Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Social Welfare, and local government representatives to underscore the importance of religious freedom and tolerance. They discussed the importance of integrating religious freedom and other human rights into security policy and stressed the importance of respecting religious minorities’ viewpoints, minority religious inclusion within society, and protecting religious minorities from extremist attacks.
During the year, the United States provided nearly $349 million in assistance for programs to assist Rohingya refugees and host communities in the country, emphasizing U.S. support for protecting vulnerable religious minority groups.
As part of U.S.-funded training for community policing, the embassy specifically encouraged law enforcement officials to protect the rights of religious minorities.
Public outreach programs encouraging interfaith tolerance among religious groups continued during the year, including a virtual roundtable held on November 24 that brought together leaders from the Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, and Muslim faiths. During the discussion, participants discussed reports of rising communal attacks against religious minorities and how the United States could assist in protecting religious minorities. On December 18, Department of State and embassy officials participated in a virtual meeting with Hindus and Christians, including the Bangladeshi diaspora community in the United States, to similarly discuss rising communal attacks, possible causal factors, and appropriate response measures. Embassy officials attended religious festivals celebrated by the Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim communities and emphasized in these events the importance of tolerance and respect for religious minorities. On November 18, the Ambassador visited the Hindu Sri Siddeswari National Temple and met with temple leadership to discuss COVID-19 and the pandemic’s impact on the Hindu community.
The embassy used social media throughout the year to promote religious freedom and tolerance. On October 27, U.S. International Religious Freedom Day, the embassy posted social media messages highlighting the U.S. government’s commitment to advancing religious freedom.
Embassy and other U.S. government officials expressed support for the rights of religious minorities and emphasized the importance of their protection. Embassy officials met regularly with a wide range of religious organizations and representatives, including the Islamic Foundation Bangladesh, BHBCUC, Bangladesh Christian Association, Buddhist Religious Welfare Trust, Christian Religious Welfare Trust, World Buddhist Association Bangladesh, Bangladesh Buddhist Federation, International Buddhist Monastery of Dhaka, and the Aga Khan Foundation. In these often virtual meetings, embassy and other U.S. government officials and representatives from the various groups discussed the state of religious freedom in the country, underscored the importance of religious tolerance, and identified challenges religious minorities encountered.
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and the right of all individuals to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion; mandates a secular state; requires the state to treat all religions impartially; and prohibits discrimination based on religion. It also states that citizens must practice their faith in a way that does not adversely affect public order, morality, or health. Ten of the 28 states have laws restricting religious conversions. In February, continued protests related to the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which excludes Muslims from expedited naturalization provisions granted to migrants of other faiths, became violent in New Delhi after counterprotestors attacked demonstrators. According to reports, religiously motivated attacks resulted in the deaths of 53 persons, most of whom were Muslim, and two security officials. According to international nongovernmental organization (NGO) Human Rights Watch, “Witnesses accounts and video evidence showed police complicity in the violence.” Muslim academics, human rights activists, former police officers, and journalists alleged anti-Muslim bias in the investigation of the riots by New Delhi police. The investigations were still ongoing at year’s end, with the New Delhi police stating it arrested almost equal numbers of Hindus and Muslims. The government and media initially attributed some of the spread of COVID-19 in the country to a conference held in New Delhi in March by the Islamic Tablighi Jamaat organization after media reported that six of the conference’s attendees tested positive for the virus. The Ministry of Home Affairs initially claimed a majority of the country’s early COVID-19 cases were linked to that event. Some members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said conference attendees spread COVID-19 “like terrorism,” which politicians and some media outlets described as “Corona Jihad.” Courts across the country dismissed numerous charges filed against Tablighi Jamaat members. Two Christians died in June after being beaten while in police custody for violating the COVID-19 curfews in Tamil Nadu. NGOs reported that nine police officers involved in the incident were charged with murder and destruction of evidence. In June, more than 200 Muslim residents of a village in Uttar Pradesh said they were leaving their homes because of intimidation by state police officials. There were reports by NGOs that the government sometimes failed to prevent or stop attacks on religious minorities. Political party leaders made inflammatory public remarks or social media posts about religious minorities. Attacks on members of religious minority communities, based on allegations of cow slaughter or trade in beef, occurred throughout the year. Such “cow vigilantism” included killings, assaults, and intimidation. Uttar Pradesh police filed charges in 1,716 cases of cow slaughter and made more than 4,000 arrests under the Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act as of August. In October, the Allahabad High Court in Uttar Pradesh ruled that the state Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act “was being misused against innocent persons” and granted bail to a Muslim individual arrested under the act. NGOs, including faith-based organizations, criticized amendments passed in September to the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) as constraining civil society by reducing the amount of foreign funding that NGOs, including religious organizations, could use for administrative purposes and adding onerous oversight and certification requirements. The government said the law strengthened oversight and accountability of foreign NGO funding in the country. In February, the government cancelled the FCRA licenses of five Christian-linked NGOs, cutting off their foreign funding. In September, the NGO Amnesty International India ceased operations in the country after the government froze its bank accounts in response to a FCRA investigation that the NGO says was motivated by its critical reporting against the government. In September, a special Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court acquitted all 32 persons, including former BJP politicians, charged in the case of the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid Mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. The CBI court ruled that the demolition of the mosque was a “spontaneous act” and there was no evidence of conspiracy.
There were reports of religiously motivated killings, assaults, riots, discrimination, vandalism, and actions restricting the right of individuals to practice and speak about their religious beliefs. In January, during anti-CAA protests in New Delhi, an armed crowd stormed a mosque, killed the muezzin, beat the imam, scattered worshippers, and set the building on fire. In September, media reported that a Hindu woman was beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam after marrying a Muslim; two Muslims were arrested for the crime. The NGO United Christian Forum’s violence monitor stated that attacks on Christians and their places of worship continued to escalate in both number and severity in 2020. The Christian NGO Persecution Relief documented 293 instances of attacks or harassment of Christians in the country in the first half of the year, despite the widespread pandemic lockdown, including six rapes and eight murders. There were 208 incidents during the same period in 2019. In its annual report, the NGO Alliance for Defense of Freedom (ADF) documented 279 instances of violence against Christians during the year, with Uttar Pradesh State reporting 70 incidents and Chhattisgarh State 66. In June, a 14-year-old boy was abducted and killed in the Malkangiri District of Odisha State. Christian organizations attributed the killing to his family’s conversion to Christianity three years earlier. Police arrested two suspects, and four remained at large at year’s end. Some Hindu leaders accused Christian leaders of forcibly converting individuals to Christianity and called for additional anticonversion legislation.
During engagements with the majority and opposition parties, civil society representatives, religious freedom activists, and leaders of various faith communities, U.S. government officials discussed the importance of religious freedom and pluralism, the value of interfaith dialogue, the Muslim community’s concerns about the CAA, and difficulties faced by faith-based and human rights-focused NGOs following the FCRA amendments and allegations that Muslims spread the COVID virus. Throughout the year, the Ambassador met with religious communities, including representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh faiths to discuss their perspectives and concerns. In May, the Ambassador organized a virtual interfaith dialogue during Ramadan in which he emphasized the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom. In January, a senior official from the Department of State Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs held a roundtable with civil society members in New Delhi to discuss interfaith harmony and promoting tolerance. In January, the Consul General in Hyderabad hosted an interfaith event to discuss the importance of mutual respect and combating religious intolerance.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.3 billion (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 national census, the most recent year for which disaggregated figures are available, Hindus constitute 79.8 percent of the population, Muslims 14.2 percent, Christians 2.3 percent, and Sikhs 1.7 percent. Groups that together constitute fewer than two percent of the population include Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians (Parsis), Jews, and Baha’is. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs officially recognizes more than 104 million members of Scheduled Tribes – indigenous groups historically outside the caste system who often practice indigenous religious beliefs – as Hindus in government statistics, although an estimated 10 million of those listed as Scheduled Tribe members are Christians, according to the 2011 census.
According to government estimates, there are large Muslim populations in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Telangana, Karnataka, and Kerala. Muslims constitute 68.3 percent of the population in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, the only state or territory in which Muslims are a majority. Slightly more than 85 percent of Muslims in the country are Sunni, with the remainder mostly Shia. Christian populations are distributed throughout the country but in greater concentrations in the northeast as well as in the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Goa. Three northeastern states have majority Christian populations: Nagaland (90 percent), Mizoram (87 percent), and Meghalaya (70 percent). Sikhs constitute 54 percent of the population of Punjab. The Dalai Lama’s office estimates that there are significant resettled Tibetan Buddhist communities in Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttarakhand, and Delhi. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and media reports, there are approximately 100,000 Tibetan Buddhists in the country. According to media reports, approximately 40,000 Muslim Rohingya refugees from Burma live in the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution mandates a secular state and provides for freedom of conscience and the right of all individuals to profess, practice, and propagate religion freely, subject to considerations of public order, morality, and health. It prohibits government discrimination based on religion, including for employment, as well as religiously based restrictions on access to public or private establishments. The constitution states that religious groups have the right to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes, manage their own affairs in religious matters, and own, acquire, and administer property. It prohibits the use of public funds to support any religion. National and state laws make freedom of religion “subject to public order, morality, and health.” The constitution stipulates that the state shall endeavor to create a uniform civil code applicable to members of all religions across the country.
Federal law empowers the government to ban religious organizations that provoke intercommunal tensions, are involved in terrorism or sedition, or violate laws governing foreign contributions.
Ten of the 28 states in the country have laws restricting religious conversion: Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh prohibit religious conversion by “force,” “allurement,” or “fraudulent means” and require district authorities to be informed of any intended conversions one month in advance. Himachal Pradesh and Odisha maintain similar prohibitions against conversion through “force,” “inducement,” or “fraud,” and bar individuals from abetting such conversions. Odisha requires individuals wishing to convert to another religion and clergy intending to officiate at a conversion ceremony to submit formal notification to the government.
Violators, including missionaries, are subject to fines and other penalties, such as prison sentences of up to three years in Chhattisgarh and up to four years in Madhya Pradesh if converts are minors, women, or members of Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes. Gujarat mandates prior permission from the district magistrate for any form of conversion and punishes “forced” conversions with up to three years of imprisonment and a fine up to 50,000 rupees ($680). In Himachal Pradesh, penalties include up to two years’ imprisonment, fines of 25,000 rupees ($340), or both. Punishments for conversions involving minors, Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe members, or in the case of Odisha, women, may include prison sentences.
Under Andhra Pradesh and Telangana law, authorities may prohibit proselytizing near places of worship. Punishment for violations may include imprisonment for up to three years and fines up to 5,000 rupees ($68).
The federal penal code criminalizes “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion” and “acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony,” including acts causing injury or harm to religious groups and their members. The penal code also prohibits “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” Violations of any of these provisions are punishable by imprisonment for up to three years, a fine, or both. If the offense is committed at a place of worship, imprisonment may be for up to five years.
There are no requirements for registration of religious groups unless they receive foreign funding, in which case they must register under the FCRA. Federal law requires religious organizations registered under the FCRA to maintain audit reports on their accounts and a schedule of their activities and to provide these to state government officials upon request.
Organizations conducting “cultural, economic, educational, religious, or social programs” that receive foreign funding are required to obtain a license under the FCRA. The federal government may also require that licensed organizations obtain prior permission before accepting or transferring foreign funds. The central government may reject a license application or a request to transfer funds if it judges the recipient to be acting against “harmony between religious, racial, social, linguistic, regional groups, castes, or communities.”
Legislation passed in September reduces the amount of funding that NGOs, including religious organizations, may use for administrative purposes from 50 to 20 percent and prohibits NGOs from transferring foreign funds to third parties.
The constitution states that any legal reference to Hindus is to be construed to include followers of Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism, meaning they are subject to laws regarding Hindus, such as the Hindu Marriage Act. Subsequent legislation continues to use the word Hindu as a category that includes Sikhs, Buddhists, Baha’is, and Jains, but it identifies the groups as separate religions whose followers are included under the legislation.
Federal law provides official minority-community status to six religious groups: Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Jains, and Buddhists. State governments may grant minority status under state law to religious groups that are minorities in a particular region. Members of recognized minority groups are eligible for government assistance programs. The constitution states that the government is responsible for protecting religious minorities and enabling them to preserve their culture and religious interests.
Personal status laws establish civil codes for members of certain religious communities in matters of marriage, divorce, adoption, and inheritance based on religion, faith, and culture. Hindu, Christian, Parsi, Jewish, and Islamic personal status laws are legally recognized and judicially enforceable. Personal status issues that are not defined for a community in a separate law are covered under Hindu personal status laws. These laws, however, do not supersede national and state legislation or constitutional provisions. The government grants autonomy to the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and the Parsi community to define their customary practices. If law boards or community leaders are not able to resolve disputes, cases are referred to the civil courts.
Interfaith couples and all couples marrying in a civil ceremony are generally required to provide public notice 30 days in advance – including addresses, photographs, and religious affiliation – for public comment, although this requirement varies across states. Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, or Jains who marry outside their religions face the possibility of losing their property inheritance rights under those communities’ personal status laws.
The law recognizes the registration of Sikh marriages but does not include divorce provisions for Sikhs. Other Sikh personal status matters fall under Hindu codes. Under the law, any person, irrespective of religion, may seek a divorce in civil court.
The constitution prohibits religious instruction in government schools; the law permits private religious schools. The law permits some Muslim, Christian, Sindhi (Hindu refugees), Parsi, and Sikh educational institutions that receive government support to set quotas for students belonging to the religious minority in question. For example, Aligarh Muslim University must admit at least 50 percent Muslims. St. Stephen’s College in Delhi and St. Xavier’s in Mumbai must admit at least 50 percent Christians.
Twenty-four of the 28 states apply partial to full restrictions on bovine slaughter. Penalties vary among states and may vary based on whether the animal is a cow, calf, bull, or ox. The ban mostly affects Muslims and members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes that traditionally consume beef. In the majority of the states where bovine slaughter is banned, punishments include imprisonment for six months to two years and a fine of 1,000 to 10,000 rupees ($14-$140). Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir penalize cow slaughter with imprisonment of two to 10 years. Gujarat state law mandates a minimum 10-year sentence (the punishment for some counts of manslaughter) and a maximum sentence of life imprisonment (the punishment for premeditated murder of humans) for killing cows, selling beef, and illegally transporting cows or beef.
One state, Madhya Pradesh, sets fines of 25,000 to 50,000 rupees ($340 to $680) and prison sentences of six months to three years for “cow vigilantism,” i.e., committing violence in the name of protecting cows. This is the first law of its kind in the country.
The National Commission for Minorities, which includes representatives from the six designated religious minorities and the National Human Rights Commission, investigates allegations of religious discrimination. The Ministry of Minority Affairs may also conduct investigations. These agencies have no enforcement powers but conduct investigations based on written complaints of criminal or civil violations and submit findings to law enforcement agencies. Eighteen of the country’s 28 states and the National Capital Territory of Delhi have state minorities commissions, which also investigate allegations of religious discrimination.
The constitution establishes the legal basis for preferential public benefit programs for Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe communities and members of the “Other Backward Classes,” a category for groups deemed to be socially and educationally disadvantaged. The constitution specifies only Hindus, Sikhs, or Buddhists are eligible to be deemed members of a Scheduled Caste. As a result, Christians and Muslims qualify for benefits if deemed to be members of “backward” classes due to their social and economic status.
The government requires foreign missionaries to obtain a missionary visa.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In February, continued protests and counterprotests related to the CAA devolved into rioting between members of Hindu and Muslim communities in East Delhi, during which 53 people were killed and nearly 400 injured. Two security officials were also killed. The police arrested 1,829 persons in connection with the riots. In its report covering 2020, the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that while a police officer and some Hindus were also killed in the rioting, the majority of victims were Muslim. The HRW report also said, “Witness accounts and video evidence showed police complicity in the violence.” In one example reported by The Guardian, Mufti Mohammad Tahir was forcibly removed by police from a mosque near Mustafabad and handed over to a crowd, which beat him unconscious and set fire to the mosque.
Among those arrested in the protests were activist and former Jawaharlal Nehru University student Umar Khalid and Jamia Milia Islamia student and activist Safoora Zargar, both Muslims. The Delhi High Court released Zargar on bail in June for health considerations. On October 22, Khalid told a Delhi court that he was being kept in solitary confinement, which had taken a toll on his “mental and physical health.”
Human rights activists and NGOs said that members of the governing BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Hindu nationalist organization made inflammatory public remarks about anti-CAA protesters but were not charged by police. HRW said that the violence in Delhi broke out soon after a local BJP politician, Kapil Mishra, demanded that the police clear the roads of protesters. In another example, in a widely viewed video posted online on January 3, Somashekhara Reddy, a state-level BJP member of the Karnataka Legislative Assembly, threatened Muslims protesting the CAA. He said, “We are 80 percent and you [the CAA protesters] are just 17 percent. Imagine what will happen to you if we turn against you.”
On April 9, the Delhi Minorities Commission (DMC) demanded the police take action in response to attacks against Muslims in New Delhi during the CAA protests. The DMC requested a report from the commissioner and unspecified “proper action” from the police over “random arrests” of Muslims in connection with the CAA riots in February. The DMC also asked police to file formal charges against perpetrators for an alleged attack on a mosque in Delhi on April 8. A July report by the DMC said the violence in Delhi was “planned and targeted,” and it found that police were filing cases against Muslims for acts of violence but were not acting against Hindu leaders accused of inciting violence, including municipal-level BJP politicians.
Muslim academics, human rights activists, former police officers, and journalists alleged anti-Muslim bias in the investigation into the riots by Delhi police. The Delhi police commissioner stated that the investigation was being carried out without regard to religion and party affiliation and noted that arrests included almost equal numbers of Muslims and Hindus.
Parliament passed the CAA in December 2019 to provide an expedited path to citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh who had entered the country on or before December 31, 2014. Similarly situated Muslims, Jews, atheists, and members of other faiths from these three countries were excluded from the CAA. As of late 2020, the government had not yet enacted rules to implement the CAA. Domestic and international media, NGOs, religious groups, intellectuals, and some political parties criticized the exclusion of Muslims from the legislation, sparking widespread protests. Activists, NGOs, and political parties filed petitions against the CAA on the grounds that it added a religious qualification to the country’s historically secular citizenship laws. None of the more than 100 legal challenges had been heard by the Supreme Court as of the year’s end. Commentators, members of some political parties, and activists said the CAA was part of an effort to marginalize Muslim communities throughout the country. They also questioned delays in hearing legal challenges to the legislation. The government stated the legislation facilitated naturalization for refugees from religious minorities who had fled neighboring countries due to religious persecution and that Muslims could also apply for citizenship through other mechanisms.
According to AsiaNews, two Christians died in June after being beaten while in police custody for violating COVID-19 pandemic curfews in Thoothukudi District, Tamil Nadu. The victims were a man and his son, who were detained for keeping their shop open beyond restricted hours on June 19. Cardinal Oswald Gracias, president of the Indian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said to the media, “Such violence from those who should defend citizens is unacceptable. Justice must run its course and punish the guilty.” The All India Catholic Union also called for intervention by the authorities. The NGO International Christian Concern (ICC) reported that four police officers were suspended after the state government opened an investigation. HRW stated that the CBI, which was asked to investigate the deaths following nationwide outrage, charged nine police officers with murder and destruction of evidence in the case.
In September, the Jharkhand Health Ministry ordered administrative action against two doctors who had allegedly declined to provide adequate medical care to Tabrez Ansari, a Muslim who was assaulted by a mob in Jharkhand in 2019 and subsequently died. In August, Ansari’s wife met with Chief Minister of Jharkhand Hemant Soren and requested an expedited trial and enhanced compensation. Some NGOs and media outlets continued to report that lawmakers sometimes denied or ignored incidents of mob violence, lynching, and communal violence. HRW reported that since May 2015, 50 persons had been killed and more than 250 injured in mob attacks, including instances when Muslims were beaten and forced to chant Hindu slogans. HRW reported that in some cases, police failed to investigate these attacks, instead filing criminal cases against witnesses to intimidate them.
Some Hindu community leaders accused Christian community leaders of forcibly converting individuals to Christianity and called for additional anticonversion legislation. According to the ICC, in June, Chief Minister of Haryana State Manohar Lal Khattar announced his intention to add an anticonversion law to the state’s legal code. Such a law had not been passed by year’s end. On August 11, Hindu nationalists attacked four Christian women at a prayer service in Faridabad District of Haryana.
On November 25, Uttar Pradesh State approved a law which would impose penalties of up to 10 years in prison for “unlawful religious conversions” and “interfaith marriages with the sole intention of changing a girl’s religion.” The governor signed the law into effect on November 28, and authorities made their first arrest under the new law on December 2, according to Indian media sources. The suspect, Owais Ahmad, was accused of pressuring a Hindu woman married to another man to leave him, convert to Islam, and marry Ahmad. His case was pending at year’s end. The Uttar Pradesh government had proposed the law after 14 cases were reported in Kanpur of Muslim men concealing their religious identity, allegedly to lure Hindu girls into romantic relationships, marry them, and force them to convert to Islam, a practice commonly referred to as “love jihad” (a derogatory term). In September, Kanpur police established a special team to investigate these cases after 11 instances of forced conversion on the pretext of marriage were reported in one month.
On December 26, Madhya Pradesh State implemented the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion ordinance, replacing the 1968 Freedom of Religion Act. The ordinance requires prior permission from a district official to convert to the spouse’s faith in case of interfaith marriage, with a prison term of up to 10 years for violators. Some NGOs criticized the law for targeting Muslim men wishing to marry or enter into relationships with non-Muslim women. The Chief Minister of Rajasthan State, Ashok Gehlot (Congress Party), said the law was “manufactured by the BJP to divide the nation on communal lines.” BJP politicians, including in states where the law had not been proposed, stated that the legislation was necessary to protect Hindu and Christian women from forced religious conversion.
On March 13, the Delhi High Court rejected a petition by local BJP politician Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay to enact a law in that state to regulate and prevent religious conversions by force or deceit, similar to the anticonversion laws enacted in other states. The court stated that religion is a personal belief and to convert to a different faith was an individual’s choice.
On March 8, according to media reports, police detained a pastor and a group of volunteers from his church for distributing food and medicine to slum residents in Villupuram District, Tamil Nadu. A local Hindu filed a complaint that the church group was proselytizing. The minister and volunteers denied the allegation and said they had been slapped and harassed while in custody at the Marakkanam police station. Police released them with a warning.
According to ADF India, on February 18, a district court in Ratlam acquitted eight Christians who had been accused in 2017 of conspiring to kidnap 60 children and covert them to Christianity in Maharashtra State.
On March 15, a group of Hindus attacked a church service in Pratapgarh, Uttar Pradesh, with hockey sticks and steel rods without intervention from police who were present, according to Pastor Indresh Kumar Gautam. Gautam told media that the Hindus accused the worshippers of increasing Christian conversions in the area. Instead of stopping the attack, police took the pastor, three Christian worshippers, and a non-Christian into custody, Gautam said. The pastor said the non-Christian was released immediately. The other four were held for six hours and released on bail after signing affidavits stating they would not be involved in further Christian conversion activities in the area. Gautam also said that a police officer beat him.
The NGOs ICC and ADF India stated that authorities pursued charges against Christians in several states, most frequently Uttar Pradesh, under religious conversion laws or laws prohibiting “insults” to religion or religious belief, including Section 259A of the national penal code. In September, the ICC reported that eight persons were arrested and several house churches closed in Lakhimpur Khere District. Those arrested were charged under Section 259A and were subsequently released on bail.
On June 6, more than 200 Muslim residents of Taprana village in Shamli town, Muzzafarnagar District, Uttar Pradesh, said they were leaving their homes because of intimidation by state police officials. Villagers told media that a police raid on May 26 prompted them to move. They said police ransacked and looted homes during the raid and arrested a Muslim resident who had returned to the village before his six-month ban for cow slaughter had ended. One witness said this was the fourth such raid in two months.
On September 30, a special CBI court acquitted all 32 persons, including former senior BJP politicians L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, charged in the 1992 destruction of the Babri Mosque by Hindu activists in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, which sparked violence that led to an estimated 2,000 deaths, mostly of local Muslim residents. The court ruled that the destruction of the mosque had not been a “preplanned act” and that there was no evidence of a conspiracy to carry it out. Some Muslim organizations pledged to appeal the ruling, and some political analysts noted that the judgment was likely to fuel feelings of discontent and marginalization among the country’s Muslim minority, while others disagreed with the ruling but welcomed a resolution to the divisive case after several decades. NGOs and opposition politicians said the outcome was inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s prior findings and expressed frustration that the court’s judgment meant an absence of accountability for the mosque’s destruction.
In November 2019, the Supreme Court awarded the site where the Babri Mosque had stood to a trust for the purpose of constructing a Hindu temple there and provided five acres of land in the city for the construction of a new mosque. On August 5, Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended the inauguration ceremony for construction of the temple. Some opposition politicians and members of civil society expressed opposition to the Prime Minister’s attending a religious ceremony in an official capacity.
On July 9, a temple and two mosques located on the premises of a Telangana State office complex were damaged during the construction of a new office complex, prompting Hindu and Muslim organizations and political parties to call for reconstruction of the structures. State Chief Minister Chandrashekar Rao said the damage was accidental, expressed regret for the incident, and said the state would construct a new temple and mosques as part of the new complex. In response to a demand from the Christian community, the Chief Minister announced on September 5 that a church would also be built in the new complex.
In October, the Supreme Court accepted the government’s plan to rebuild a smaller temple on the former site of the Guru Ravidas Hindu temple, which had been demolished in August 2019 as part of a government drive against illegal properties. Hindu Dalit groups had protested the demolition and demanded the temple’s reconstruction.
The government and media initially attributed early cases of COVID-19 in the country to a conference held in New Delhi in March by the Islamic Tablighi Jamaat organization after media reported that six conference attendees – including some who had travelled from abroad – had tested positive for the virus after gathering at a large event in contravention of social distancing provisions. The Ministry of Home Affairs initially claimed a majority of the country’s COVID-19 cases were linked to the event. Some studies indicated the event had resulted in an initial spread of COVID-19. A BJP member of the state legislative assembly in Karnataka said the Tablighi Jamaat conference attendees were spreading COVID-19 “like terrorism.” A senior state-level BJP leader in Maharashtra State called the Muslims who attended the conference “human bombs.” Politicians and some media labeled this “Corona Jihad,” which some NGOs said reflected increasing anti-Muslim sentiment.
At a press briefing on April 4, Ministry of Home Affairs Secretary Punya Salila Srivastava said that law enforcement agencies “through a massive effort, had located and placed around 22,000 Tablighi Jamaat workers and their contacts in quarantine.” Most of those quarantined were Muslim. In July, authorities charged conference participants from 34 countries, most of whom were Muslim, for violation of visa conditions and “malicious spreading of COVID-19.” Of 956 Tablighi Jamaat members and foreign nationals detained in Delhi, 249 were granted bail and an additional 132 were released in July. In Uttar Pradesh State, 512 Tablighi Jamaat members were released in June following court orders.
In an online address to the nation on April 26, Mohan Bhagwat, the leader of the RSS, called on Indians not to discriminate against anyone in the fight against COVID-19. In a reference to the March Tablighi Jamaat conference, he asked people not to target members of a “particular community” (i.e., Muslims) “just because of the actions of a few.” Prime Minister Modi tweeted on April 19, “COVID-19 does not see race, religion, color, caste, creed, language or borders before striking. Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood.”
On April 3, the Gujarat High Court directed national and Gujarat State officials to submit a list of citizens and foreign nationals who participated in the Tablighi Jamaaat conference and later entered Gujarat. On August 21, the Aurangabad bench of the Mumbai High Court annulled complaints against 29 foreign nationals alleged to have violated their visas by visiting Maharashtra State (where Mumbai is located) after attending the conference. The judges said that authorities had identified and charged the foreigners in order to make them scapegoats. On September 21, during a Gujarat State legislature meeting, Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel and other BJP lawmakers in Gujarat said that Tablighi Jamaat members were responsible for the initial spread of COVID-19 in that state.
On September 24, the Nagpur Bench of the Mumbai High Court dismissed a case against eight Burmese Muslims who were charged with engaging in religious activities that contributed to the spread of COVID-19 in Maharashtra State. The eight had visited a mosque in Nagpur just before pandemic restrictions were imposed in March.
On June 17, the Telangana State High Court questioned Hyderabad police on why cases were registered against “a disproportionate number of Muslims” on the charge of violating COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. The court asked the state police chief to submit evidence of action taken against police officials who used excess force on the alleged violators of the lockdown. Police denied that they were targeting Muslims and said their internal investigation showed that all had suffered their injuries “accidentally.”
The NGO Shia Rights Watch said that during the month of Muharram (August 20 to September 17), authorities had restricted Shia processions in areas of Jammu and Kashmir, blocking roads, arresting 200 persons, and injuring 40. Authorities said the processions were in violation of the COVID-19 lockdown orders.
On March 27, police in Kandhamal District of Odisha arrested a pastor and an official of a church on a charge of violating lockdown restrictions and conducting prayers with approximately 60 attendees. The pastor said he was leading the prayer service because it was “the only weapon” against the virus. The two were later released on bail.
On March 29, police in Hyderabad detained a pastor for organizing worship in a church during a COVID-19 lockdown. He was charged with disobeying an order from a public servant and conducting an act likely to spread an infectious disease dangerous to life. The pastor was released on bail; his case remained under investigation at year’s end.
On April 5, police in the Godavari District of Andhra Pradesh dispersed a Sunday church gathering of 150 persons and arrested Pastor N. Vijay Ratnam on a charge of violating lockdown guidelines. On April 8, police in Hyderabad arrested 10 Muslims, including two imams, for violating lockdown restrictions and offering prayers in a mosque. Ratnam and the imams were released on bail; their cases were under routine investigation at year’s end.
On November 5, a National Investigative Agency (NIA) court in Mumbai extended the detention of Stan Swamy, a Jesuit priest and 84-year-old social activist, on sedition charges in connection with a violent demonstration that resulted in several deaths. NIA officers arrested him on October 8 at his residence on the outskirts of Ranchi, Jharkhand, and his communication with others during detention was strictly regulated. Swamy remained in jail at year’s end.
On July 28, according to media reports, the BJP-controlled Karnataka State government removed some lessons on Christianity and Islam from middle school social science textbooks, stating that the move was intended to shorten the curriculum while school sessions were limited due to pandemic restrictions. After strong reaction from the state’s opposition parties, the state government agreed to review the decision. As of the end of the year, the review was pending.
On October 19, the Allahabad High Court in Uttar Pradesh ruled that the state’s Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act “was being misused against innocent persons” and granted bail to a Muslim arrested under the act. Uttar Pradesh police had filed charges in 1,716 cases of cow slaughter and made more than 4,000 arrests under the Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act as of August. According to Uttar Pradesh State government data, the National Security Act (NSA) was also used in some cow slaughter cases; observers said this was to make the charges more serious. Persons detained under the NSA may be held up to 12 months without formal charges.
On March 9, the Gujarat High Court overruled a lower court’s order and allowed two Hindus to sell their property to a Muslim under the terms of the Gujarat Disturbed Areas Act, which mandates that property buyers and sellers of different religions receive prior permission for transactions in specified neighborhoods. The State of Gujarat has the only such law in the country. The court decision was significant, according to the Gujarat Minority Coordination Committee, which monitors human rights in the area, because the Gujarat law in practice often restricted Muslims to buying and selling property in low-income areas.
On August 30, a Hindu man in Gujarat filed a complaint with police objecting to his Parsi neighbor’s selling land to a Muslim and alleging the buyer concealed his religion and forged documents to evade provisions of the Gujarat Disturbed Areas Act. The complaint remained under police investigation at year’s end.
In July, Minister for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi stated that cases of triple talaq (the practice by which a Muslim man may immediately divorce his wife by saying the Arabic word talaq three times) had declined by 82 percent since the government passed a bill in 2019 criminalizing the practice. He said the law had nothing to do with religion and had been passed to ensure gender equality by ending an “inhuman, cruel, and unconstitutional practice.”
In February, Chief Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde referred to a seven-judge panel for action a 2016 challenge to a Supreme Court ruling that recognized the minority status of Islamic educational institutions, including Aligarh Muslim University, and their independence in hiring and curriculum decisions. The panel had not ruled on the petition by the end of the year.
On September 15, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath announced that a new museum in Agra would be renamed after the Hindu warrior-king Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj instead of in honor of the nation’s historic Muslim Mughal rulers, as had been announced by the previous government in Uttar Pradesh. Adityanath said that the Muslim rulers “cannot be our heroes.”
In September, the national parliament amended the FCRA to prohibit NGOs registered under the act from using more than 20 percent of the foreign funding they receive for administrative expenses. Previously, this limit was 50 percent. The amendment also prohibited FCRA-registered NGOs from transferring their foreign funding to a third party. Opposition parties and NGOs, including faith-based organizations, criticized the amendment and said it was an attempt to muzzle civil society voices. According to HRW, the amendments “added onerous governmental oversight, additional regulations and certification processes, and operational requirements, which would adversely affect civil society groups, and effectively restrict access to foreign funding for small nongovernmental organizations.” The government defended the amendment, stating it strengthened the regulatory mechanism that governs use of foreign funding by NGOs in the country and that NGOs were required to comply with relevant laws.
On February 5, the Ministry of Home Affairs suspended the FCRA licenses of Ecreosoculis North Western Gossner Evangelical in Jharkhand, the Evangelical Churches Association (ECA) in Manipur, the Northern Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jharkhand, and the New Life Fellowship Association Mumbai, preventing the organizations from receiving funds from outside of the country. The ministry said these organizations were engaged in proselytizing, which is a violation for organizations registered under the FCRA.
On September 29, Amnesty International India announced that it was ceasing operations in the country after the government froze its bank accounts in response to an FCRA investigation. The NGO said the government had accused it of violating foreign funding laws in reprisal for its human rights advocacy. In 2018 and 2019, the NGO had documented what were described as numerous hate crime incidents against Christians and Muslims in the country.
On September 15, in response to a petition filed by Jamia Milia Islamia, the Supreme Court suspended broadcasts of a news serial program, Bindas Bol, on the grounds that it was prejudiced against the notion of Muslims joining the Indian civil services and that it “vilified” the Muslim community. The court upheld the suspension in subsequent hearings.
Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah told the media in September that as a result of the central government’s ending the special constitutional status of the territory in 2019 and assuming responsibility for government personnel decisions, an unknown number of Muslim civil servants had been removed from their positions in the territory and replaced by Hindus.
In November, Karnataka member of the legislative council Shantaram Siddi said that members of his Siddi minority group, who are descended from African slaves in Goa, should not be considered members of the Scheduled Tribes, and thus eligible for government benefits, if they converted from Hinduism to Islam or Christianity. He stated that those who converted and received benefits were putting Hindu Siddis at a disadvantage.
Organizations representing members of Dalit communities continued to challenge at the Supreme Court the practice of denying members of lower castes eligibility for educational and job placement programs for those who convert from Hinduism to another religion.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
International media reported that Hindus led violent attacks against Muslims during February riots in East Delhi. In one case reported by The Guardian, Muhammed Zubar said he was beaten with clubs by a group chanting Hindu slogans. The Guardian also reported the case of Imran Khan, who said a mob surrounded him on the street, identified him as Muslim, and beat him unconscious with iron rods, crowbars, and metal pipes before dragging him into a gutter with a rope tied around his neck.
According to the NGO Centre for Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS), national media reported 23 incidents of mob lynching during the year, compared with 107 incidents in 2019. The CSSS said the decline was attributed to the COVID-19 lockdowns around the country. Twenty-two individuals were killed in the attacks, including Muslims, Christians, and Hindus, according to the CSSS. Seven of the incidents were directly linked to cow vigilantism. For example, on January 31, a mob in the Bhiwandi District of Maharashtra State attacked Muslims Nafees Qureshi, Aamir Khan, and Aakib Aalam, who were loading a buffalo into their vehicle. Police arrived to break up the attack, but Qureshi died in the hospital from injuries inflicted by the mob. Police later filed a murder case against six of the attackers.
On April 16, according to media reports, a mob in Palghar, Maharashtra, lynched Hindu monks Kalpavrukshagiri Maharaj and Sushilgiri Maharaj along with their driver, accusing them of being child kidnappers. The mob pulled the three monks from a police vehicle and killed them, also injuring two police officers. Opposition party members in Maharashtra said the killings were motivated by the religious identity of the victims and that the perpetrators were Christian, but the Maharashtra government stated the incident was due to general fear and suspicion of child kidnapping in the area.
The NGO United Christian Forum’s violence monitor stated that attacks on Christians and their places of worship continued to escalate in both number and severity during the year. According to the NGO, COVID-19 lockdowns did not lessen attacks on religious minorities. However, the monitor recorded 200 attacks against Christians as of November 12, compared to more than 300 cases reported in all of 2019.
Tehmina Arora, the director of ADF India, said attacks against Christians happened “nearly every day.” In its annual report, the ADF documented 279 instances of violence against Christians in 2020, with Uttar Pradesh reporting 70 incidents and Chhattisgarh 66. On November 16, a group of individuals described as religious extremists disrupted a wedding ceremony at a church in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, and threatened the pastor. The protesters also prevented the pastor from holding prayer services, according to the ADF. The ADF report also said that the Uttar Pradesh law against unlawful religious conversions targeted Christians and restricted their individual freedom to convert to another faith.
The Christian NGO Persecution Relief reported 293 cases of attacks on or harassment of Christians in the country in the first half of the year, despite the widespread pandemic lockdown. The incidents included six rapes and eight killings, according to the NGO. During the same period in 2019, Persecution Relief recorded 208 incidents. The NGO also reported an increase in social media posts by Hindus accusing Christians of forced conversions that included footage of attacks on Christians.
In July, the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) stated there had been 135 attacks against Christian churches, homes, or individuals across the country in the first six months of the year. EFI general secretary Vijayesh Lal said attacks increased during the pandemic lockdown. In September, however, EFI reported 32 incidents of religiously motivated violence against Christians in Uttar Pradesh in the first six months of 2020, compared with 86 recorded incidents in the state in all of 2019. According to the NGO International Christian Concern, the COVID-19 lockdowns likely reduced persecution in Uttar Pradesh, but reported attacks against Christians increased once pandemic restrictions eased.
In its World Watch List 2020 report, the NGO Open Doors stated that Hindu extremists, who believed the country should “be rid of Christianity and Islam,” used extensive violence, particularly targeting Christians from a Hindu background. According to the NGO, Christians were often accused of following a “foreign faith” and physically attacked in their villages.
Unlike previous years, the government did not present statistics on religious violence to parliament during the year.
In an example of the sectarian violence sparked by continued protests over the CAA, CNN reported that an armed crowd stormed a mosque in the Ashok Nagar area of New Delhi on January 25, killed the muezzin, beat the imam, scattered worshippers, and set the building on fire.
On September 25, according to media reports, Priya Soni, a Hindu, was beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam after marrying Muslim Ajaz Ahmed in a civil ceremony. Ahmed and Shoaib Akhtar, also a Muslim, were arrested for the crime and were in custody while the police investigation continued at year’s end. According to media, Ahmed and Akhtar were part of an organized group that lured Hindu women into marriage and then forced them to convert.
On October 26, Nikita Tomar, a Hindu, was killed by a Muslim outside her college in Faridabad, Haryana State. Tomar’s family said that she had resisted pressure by her killer to convert to Islam and marry him. In January, the Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala issued a statement that 12 Christian women had been forcibly converted to Islam and taken to Syria to join ISIS and that some may have been killed.
On June 4, 14-year-old Samaru Madkami was abducted and killed in the Malkangiri District of Odisha. Police said they suspected he was killed because the attackers believed he had been practicing witchcraft, but Christian organizations attributed the killing to his family’s conversion to Christianity three years earlier. Police arrested two suspects, while four remained at large at year’s end. A church source stated that 14 Christians had been killed in Malkangiri District in the previous two years.
On August 12, according to media reports, police in Bangalore fatally shot three persons during violent protests by Muslims regarding a Facebook post they said denigrated the Prophet Mohammed. Sixty police were also injured. Bangalore police arrested the nephew of a Karnataka State legislator from the Congress Party for posting the item on Facebook.
The NGO Persecution Relief reported that on January 12, Hindu activists attacked several Christian homes in Banni Mardatti village in Karnataka State, which led Christian families to move away from the village. On March 1, a Karnataka pastor was attacked by Hindu activists as he led church services. Persecution Relief reported that the pastor was dragged out of his house church, tied to a tree, and beaten with sticks.
Morning Star News reported that a crowd of more than 200 attacked a house church in Haryana State on January 5, beating and kicking the pastor, whom they accused of forcibly converting Hindus to Christianity. Police officers took the pastor to a hospital for treatment of a broken leg before detaining him for forcible conversion. He was released on bail on January 7.
The NGO ICC reported that a crowd disrupted a prayer service being hosted in a local home on March 11, then returned to beat the leader of the service and ransack his home when he and his family would not renounce their faith. The victim was hospitalized for a week. Local police declined to take action against the assailants, according to the NGO.
On September 16, assailants in Jharkhand State’s Simdega District reportedly beat seven tribal Christians, partially shaved their heads, and forced them to chant Hindu invocations. The assailants alleged the Christians had slaughtered a cow. Police arrested four of the nine assailants.
In March, the Juvenile Justice Board in Alwar, Rajasthan State handed down the first punishment in the 2017 mob killing of Muslim cattle trader and dairy farmer Pehlu Khan. The board sentenced two minor defendants to three years in a juvenile home.
Several Muslim leaders and activists in Telangana State said local BJP leaders and other Hindu activists encouraged Hindus not to buy from Muslim merchants following media reports that many attendees of the Tablighi Jamaat conference in New Delhi in March, who had been accused of spreading COVID-19, were from Telangana.
In April, a leading Urdu-language newspaper warned against a “new wave of hatred against Muslims” created under the pretext of the Tablighi Jamaat’s “so-called civic irresponsibility amid the lockdown.” The newspaper stated, “The assumption that the [Tablighi] Jamaat and Muslims are solely responsible for the spread of coronavirus in India is very dangerous.”
In June, the ICC stated that local Hindu groups in charge of food aid distribution during the pandemic lockdown denied aid to Christian groups unless they renounced their faith. In at least one instance, according to the ICC, Hindus and police attacked a pastor and his congregation, saying the aid was not meant for Christians.
On March 5, a group of Hindu activists prevented a Christian evangelist and his wife from distributing Bible literature in Vellore District, Tamil Nadu State. The activists then assaulted the couple and smeared Hindu sacred ash on their foreheads.
On March 2, Hindu activists entered the Catholic Sanjo Hospital in Karnataka State and assaulted staff for keeping copies of the Bible in hospital rooms and holding prayer services. Police subsequently arrested one hospital employee for proselytizing.
According to Persecution Relief, a Dalit Christian family was prevented from obtaining water from a local well by Hindu groups in a village in Karnataka State. Local police were called to resolve the matter, and the family was permitted to retrieve water.
On February 2, Jharkhand Disom Party (JDP) workers in West Bengal’s Malda District violently disrupted a Hindu mass wedding ceremony for 130 tribal couples organized by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). A JDP leader told the media that the tribal individuals were being converted to Hinduism by being married in a Hindu ceremony. The leader also said that the VHP had enticed participants by promising each couple 12,000 rupees ($160). VHP representatives said they organized the wedding ceremony in line with tribal customs.
There were numerous acts of vandalism and arson targeting Christian sites and symbols during the year. The NGO Persecution Relief documented 49 cases of churches being vandalized, destroyed, or burned over six months, including in Belgaum District, Karnataka, where a church under construction was set on fire on December 17. The NGO said the pastor filed a complaint with police, but arsonists returned on December 22 and set the church on fire again. Police provided protection to the pastor and church members after the second incident.
On June 13, unidentified individuals burned down the Church of True Peace Pentecostal Church in Tamil Nadu’s Chengalpattu District. The pastor said he suspected arson and filed a report with local police. According to Persecution Relief, attacks on Christians in Tamil Nadu increased steadily in recent years, with 57 reported in 2017, 67 in 2018, and 75 in 2019.
In January, unknown individuals vandalized the St. Francis Assisi Catholic Church in a suburb of Bengaluru and ransacked the altar, according to media accounts. Police opened an investigation.
On March 3, police removed a statute of Jesus from a Christian cemetery in Doddasagarhalli, Karnataka, after local Hindus pressed local authorities to remove it, according to the Catholic news site Crux. Archbishop Peter Machado of Bangalore condemned the “forceful removal” of the statute from land that local Christians had used without incident as a cemetery for more than 30 years. He stated the site was not being used for forcible conversions, as alleged by Hindus from outside the village. Machado said the removal was a “violation of the religious freedom guaranteed to us by the Indian Constitution.”
Media reported that in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, a group threw a bottle filled with gasoline at one mosque and stones at another in retaliation for an attack made on a local Hindu leader during the protests against the CAA.
A Hindu temple in East Godavari District of Andhra Pradesh State was damaged by fire on September 6. In the protests that followed on September 8, a mob attacked a local church with stones, damaging its windows and compound wall. Police arrested 43 persons belonging to various Hindu organizations in connection with the attack on the church. Andhra Pradesh police opened an investigation into the church attack, but all suspects were free on bail at year’s end. On September 11, the state government ordered a separate probe by the CBI into the temple fire; the probe had not begun as of year’s end.
On September 1, unidentified persons demolished a church in Khammam District, Telangana State. The pastor said that Hindu nationalists carried out the attack in retaliation for a complaint he filed against them in 2019 for disturbing worship.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
During the year, U.S. embassy and consulate officials met with government officials to discuss reports of religious freedom abuses. Embassy officials, including the Ambassador, engaged with members of parliament and politicians from the ruling and opposition parties on the CAA. They emphasized the importance the United States attaches to religious freedom and the responsibility of democracies to ensure the rights of religious minorities. Among the issues discussed were the Muslim community’s concerns about the CAA, difficulties faced by faith-based NGOs in the wake of amendments to the FCRA, and allegations that Muslims spread the COVID-19 virus.
Embassy and consulate officials met with political leaders from religious minorities, NGOs, civil society members, academics, and interfaith leaders to discuss the concerns of religious minorities and reports of religious persecution and religiously motivated attacks. Embassy representatives engaged civil rights NGOs, media representatives, interfaith groups, religious leaders, and politicians to discuss their perspectives on the CAA and its continued impact.
Throughout the year, the Ambassador engaged with religious communities, including representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh faiths. In May, the Ambassador organized a virtual interfaith dialogue during Ramadan in which he emphasized the importance the U.S. government attached to religious freedom in the country. Members of academia, media commentators on interfaith issues, NGO interfaith activists, and representatives of multiple faiths participated.
In January, a senior official from the Department of State Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs held a roundtable on religious freedom issues with civil society members in Delhi. Also in January, the U.S. Consul General in Hyderabad hosted an interfaith event at his residence and discussed with representatives of principal faiths the rising trend of religious intolerance in the country and how to confront it. In March, embassy officers met with activists of a Dalit human rights network to discuss the perspectives of Dalits and other marginalized religious communities.
The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion and requires all provisions of the law to be consistent with Islam. The constitution states, “Subject to law, public order, and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion.” It also states, “A person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis) is a non-Muslim.” The courts continued to enforce blasphemy laws, punishment for which ranges up to the death penalty. According to civil society reports, there were many individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges, at least 35 of whom had received death sentences, as compared with 82 individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges and 29 who received death sentences in 2019. According to the Center for Social Justice, a national nongovernmental organization (NGO), at least 199 individuals were accused of blasphemy offenses, a significant increase over 2019 and the highest number of blasphemy cases in a single year in the country’s history. The accused were mostly Shia (70 percent of cases) and Ahmadi Muslims (20 percent of cases). Other NGOs corroborated that 2020 had seen an increase in blasphemy cases. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), a national NGO, expressed concern over a surge in blasphemy cases against religious minorities, particularly the Shia community, and the continued potential for sectarian violence. It stated that more than 40 cases against religious minorities were registered under the blasphemy laws in August alone. In October, the Lahore High Court acquitted a Christian of blasphemy, the first such ruling since 2018. The court acquitted a second Christian in December. Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders continued to report they were affected by discriminatory and ambiguous legislation and court judgments that denied them basic rights, including a 2018 Islamabad High Court judgment that some government agencies continued to use to deny national identification cards to Ahmadi Muslims. In May, the Cabinet approved a proposal creating a National Commission for Minorities within the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Religious freedom activists and civil society groups said the proposal was “toothless” and raised concerns regarding the ministry’s lack of public consultation, the limited powers of the proposed body, and the fact that Ahmadi Muslims were excluded. The government of Punjab, the country’s largest province, passed a series of measures against Ahmadi Muslim beliefs. Throughout the year, some government officials and politicians engaged in anti-Ahmadi rhetoric and attended events that Ahmadi Muslims said incited violence against members of their community. Following the July killing of U.S. citizen and self-identified Ahmadi Muslim Tahir Naseem, who was standing trial for blasphemy charges, some political party leaders celebrated the killer’s actions. In December, using expanded authorities granted by the government in November, the Pakistani Telecommunications Authority publicly demanded the removal of “sacrilegious” content from the Google Play Store and Wikipedia. NGOs expressed concern that authorities often failed to intervene in instances of societal violence against religious minorities due to fear of retaliation, inadequate staff, or apathy. Perpetrators of societal violence and abuses against religious minorities often faced no legal consequences due to a lack of follow-through by law enforcement, bribes offered by the accused, and pressure on victims to drop cases. The government took some measures to protect religious minorities. On January 26, for example, a local court sentenced four boys for vandalizing a Hindu temple in Sindh’s Tharparkar District, the first attack on a Hindu temple in that area in more than 30 years; minority lawmakers and civil society activists reacted strongly to the attack. In July, religious and right-wing parties criticized the government’s plan to permit construction of a new Hindu temple in Islamabad.
Armed sectarian groups, including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and the once-banned anti-Shia group Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), which is connected to other organizations banned by the government as extremist, and groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States and other governments, continued to stage attacks targeting Shia Muslims, including the predominantly Shia Hazara community. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), however, the number of sectarian attacks and killings by armed groups decreased compared with previous years, corresponding with a continued overall decline in terrorist attacks. The government continued to implement the National Action Plan against terrorism, including countering sectarian hate speech and extremism as well as conducting military and law enforcement operations against violent groups. Multiple civil society groups and faith community leaders stated the government had increased efforts to provide enhanced security at religious minority places of worship, which had been frequent targets of attack in past years. Police and security forces throughout the country enhanced security measures during religious holidays in consultation with religious leaders.
Throughout the year, unidentified individuals targeted and killed Shia Muslims, including ethnic Hazaras, and Ahmadi Muslims in attacks believed to be religiously motivated. There were a series of additional violent incidents targeting Ahmadis following the Tahir Naseem killing in a Peshawar courtroom. An Ahmadi trader in Peshawar was shot near his business on August 12. On October 5, also in Peshawar, Ahmadi professor Naeemuddin Khattak was shot and killed while driving home from work. On November 9, also in Peshawar, unknown gunmen killed an 82-year-old retired government worker who was a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community while he was waiting for a bus. The attackers’ relationship to organized terrorist groups was often unclear. Human rights activists reported numerous instances of societal violence related to allegations of blasphemy; of efforts by individuals to coerce religious minorities to convert to Islam; and of societal harassment, discrimination, and threats of violence directed at members of religious minority communities. Sunni groups held three large rallies in Karachi in September, with speakers warning Shia Muslims of dire consequences, including beheadings, if they continued to blaspheme against the Prophet Mohammed’s companions. NGOs expressed concern about what they stated was the increasing frequency of attempts to kidnap, forcibly convert, and forcibly marry young women from religious minority communities, especially young Hindu and Christian women. There continued to be reports of attacks on holy places, cemeteries, and religious symbols of Hindu, Christian, and Ahmadiyya minorities. According to Ahmadi Muslim civil society organizations, the government failed to restrict advertisements or speeches inciting anti-Ahmadi violence, as provided for in the National Action Plan. Civil society groups continued to express concerns about the safety of religious minorities.
Senior Department of State officials, including the Office of International Religious Freedom’s Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, the Charge d’Affaires, consuls general, and other embassy officers met with government officials and senior advisors to the Prime Minister, including the Minister for Human Rights, and officials from the Ministry of Law and Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training, and Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony to discuss blasphemy law reform; laws concerning Ahmadi Muslims; the need to better protect members of religious minority communities; sectarian relations; and religious respect. Embassy officers continued to engage civil society leaders, local religious leaders, religious minority representatives, and legal experts in discussing ways to combat intolerance and promote interfaith cooperation to increase religious freedom. Visiting U.S. government officials met with religious minority community representatives, parliamentarians, human rights activists, and members of the federal cabinet to highlight concerns regarding the treatment of religious minority communities, the application of blasphemy laws, and other forms of discrimination on the basis of religion. The embassy highlighted the principles of religious freedom and examples of interfaith dialogue in the United States on its social media platforms throughout the year. U.S. government cultural centers in Khairpur, Hyderabad, and Karachi held events to promote religious freedom. Following the killing of Tahir Naseem, the Department of State issued a statement expressing outrage over the killing and noting that Naseem had been lured from his home in the United States by individuals who used blasphemy laws to entrap him. The statement also called on the government to reform its blasphemy laws and court system and to ensure that the suspect in Naseem’s killing be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Following the killing of Ahmadi physician Tahir Ahmad in November, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom posted an official tweet calling upon authorities to ensure the safety of all Pakistanis.
On December 2, the Secretary of State redesignated Pakistan as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interests of the United States.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 234.4 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the provisional results of a national census conducted in 2017 (the most recent), 96 percent of the population is Sunni or Shia Muslim. According to government figures, the remaining 4 percent includes Ahmadi Muslims (whom national law does not recognize as Muslim); Hindus; Christians, including Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Protestants, among others; Parsis/Zoroastrians; Baha’is; Sikhs; Buddhists; Kalash; and Kihals and Jains.
Sources vary on the precise breakdown of the Muslim population between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Sunnis are generally believed to be 80-85 percent of the Muslim population, and Shia Muslims, including Hazara, Ismaili, and Bohra (a branch of Ismaili), are generally believed to make up 15-20 percent. Unofficial estimates vary widely with regard to the size of minority religious groups. Religious community representatives estimate religious groups not identifying as Sunni, Shia, or Ahmadi Muslim constitute 3 to 5 percent of the population.
According to the 2017 census results, the population is 1.6 percent Hindu, 1.6 percent Christian, 0.2 percent Ahmadi Muslim, and 0.3 percent others, to include Baha’is, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Taking into account the Ahmadi boycott of the official census, however, community sources put the number of Ahmadi Muslims at approximately 500,000 to 600,000. Estimates of the Zikri Muslim community, located in Balochistan, range between 500,000 and 800,000 individuals. Several minority rights advocacy groups dispute the provisional results of the 2017 census and state the numbers underrepresent their true population and their political influence, because minority seats in the national and provincial parliaments are allocated based on census figures.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but states, “Subject to law, public order, and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion.” According to the constitution, every citizen has the right to freedom of speech, subject to “reasonable restrictions in the interest of the glory of Islam,” as stipulated in the penal code. According to the penal code, the punishments for persons convicted of blasphemy include the death penalty for “defiling the Prophet Mohammed,” life imprisonment for “defiling, damaging, or desecrating the Quran,” and up to 10 years’ imprisonment for “insulting another’s religious feelings.” Speech or action intended to incite religious hatred is punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment. Under the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony is responsible for reviewing internet traffic and reporting blasphemous or offensive content to the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority for possible removal or to the Federal Investigative Agency for possible criminal prosecution.
The constitution defines “Muslim” as a person who “believes in the unity and oneness of Almighty Allah, in the absolute and unqualified finality of the Prophethood of Mohammed… the last of the prophets, and does not believe in, or recognize as a prophet or religious reformer, any person who claimed or claims to be a prophet after Mohammed.” It also states that “a person belonging to the Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, or Parsi community, a person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis), or a Baha’i, and a person belonging to any of the scheduled castes” is a “non-Muslim.”
According to the constitution and the penal code, Ahmadis may not call themselves Muslims or assert they are adherents of Islam. The penal code bans them from “posing as Muslims,” using Islamic terms, carrying out Islamic customs, preaching or propagating their religious beliefs, proselytizing, or “insulting the religious feelings of Muslims.” The punishment for violating these provisions is imprisonment for up to three years and a fine, the amount of which is at the discretion of the sentencing judge.
The penal code does not explicitly criminalize apostasy, but renouncing Islam is widely considered by clerics to be a form of blasphemy, which can carry the death penalty.
The government may use the antiterrorism courts, established as a parallel legal structure under the 1997 Antiterrorism Act, to try cases involving violent crimes, terrorist activities, and acts or speech deemed by the government to foment religious hatred, including blasphemy.
The constitution states no person shall be required to take part in any religious ceremony or attend religious worship relating to a religion other than the person’s own.
The constitution provides for “freedom to manage religious institutions.” It states every religious denomination shall have the right to establish and maintain its own institutions. The constitution states no person shall be compelled to pay any special tax for the propagation or maintenance of a religion other than the person’s own. The government collects a mandatory, automatic 2.5 percent zakat (tax) from Sunni Muslims who hold savings accounts in banks. It distributes the funds through a government-run charity as stipends for poor families and students, payment for medical treatment, and support to Sunni mosques and madrassahs registered with the government. Sunni Muslims who want to distribute zakat themselves may request an exemption, and Shia Muslims are exempted by filling out a declaration of faith form.
The constitution mandates that the government take steps to enable Muslims, individually and collectively, to order their lives in accordance with the fundamental principles and basic concepts of Islam and to promote the observance of Islamic moral standards. It directs the state to endeavor to secure the proper organization of Islamic tithes, religious foundations, and places of worship.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony is responsible for organizing participation in the Hajj and other Islamic religious pilgrimages. Authorities also consult the ministry on matters such as blasphemy and Islamic education. The ministry’s budget covers assistance to indigent minorities, repair of minority places of worship, establishment of minority-run small development projects, celebration of minority religious festivals, and provision of scholarships for religious minority students.
The law prohibits publishing any criticism of Islam or its prophets or insults to others’ religious beliefs. The law bans the sale of Ahmadiyya religious literature.
The provincial and federal governments have legal responsibility for certain minority religious properties abandoned during the 1947 partition of British India.
The constitution states that no person attending any educational institution shall be required to attend religious instruction or take part in any religious ceremony relating to a religion other than the person’s own. It also states that no religious denomination shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for pupils of its denomination in an educational institution maintained by the denomination.
The constitution states the government shall make Islamic studies compulsory for all Muslim students in state-run schools. Although students of other religious groups are not legally required to study Islam, schools do not always offer parallel studies in their own religious beliefs. In some schools, however, non-Muslim students may study ethics. Parents may send children to private schools, including religious schools, at the family’s expense. In Punjab, Sindh, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provinces, private schools are also required to teach Islamic studies and the Quran to Muslim students.
By law, madrassahs are prohibited from teaching or encouraging sectarian or religious hatred or violence. Wafaqs (independent academic boards) register seminaries, regulate curricula, and issue degrees. The five wafaqs each represent major streams of Islamic thought in the country: Barelvi, Deobandi, Shia, Ahle Hadith, and the Jamaat-i-Islami, which is considered ultraconservative. The wafaqs operate through an umbrella group, Ittehad-e-Tanzeemat-e-Madaris Pakistan, to represent their interests to the government. The government requires all madrassahs to register with the Ministry of Education in addition to registration with one of the five wafaqs.
The constitution states, “All existing laws shall be brought into conformity with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah [Islam’s body of traditional social and legal custom and practice].” It further states no law shall be enacted which is “repugnant” to Islam. The constitution states this requirement shall not affect the “personal laws of non-Muslim citizens” or their status as citizens. Some personal laws regulating marriage, divorce, and inheritance for minority communities date from prepartition British legislation.
The constitution establishes a Federal Shariat Court (FSC) composed of Muslim judges to examine and decide whether any law or provision is “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.” The constitution gives the FSC the power to examine a law of its own accord or at the request of the government or a private citizen. The constitution requires the government to amend the law as directed by the court. The constitution also grants the FSC “revisional jurisdiction” (the power to review of its own accord) over criminal cases in the lower courts relating to certain crimes under the Hudood Ordinance, including rape and those linked to Islamic morality, such as extramarital sex, alcohol use, and gambling. The court may suspend or increase the sentence given by a criminal court in these cases. The FSC’s review power applies whether the cases involve Muslims or non-Muslims. Non-Muslims may not appear before the FSC. If represented by a Muslim lawyer, however, non-Muslims may consult the FSC in other matters, such as questions of sharia or Islamic practice that affect them or violate their rights. By law, decisions of the FSC may be appealed to the Supreme Court’s Shariat Appellate Bench. A full bench of the Supreme Court may grant a further appeal.
The constitution establishes a Council of Islamic Ideology to make recommendations, at the request of the parliament and provincial assemblies, as to “the ways and means of enabling and encouraging Muslims to order their lives in accordance with the principles of Islam.” The constitution further empowers the council to advise the legislative and executive branches when they choose to refer a question to the council as to whether a proposed law is or is not “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.”
In the absence of specific language in the law authorizing civil or common law marriage, marriage certificates are signed by religious authorities and registered with the local marriage registrar. The province-level Sindh Hindu Marriage Act and the national-level Hindu Marriage Act (applying to federal territory and all other provinces) codify legal mechanisms to formally register and prove the legitimacy of Hindu marriages. In addition to addressing a legal gap by providing documentation needed for identity registration, divorce, and inheritance, the Hindu Marriage Acts allow marriages to be voided when consent “was obtained by force, coercion, or by fraud.” The acts allow for the termination of the marriage upon the conversion of one party to a religion other than Hinduism. The Sindh provincial government has legislation allowing couples to seek divorce and granting Hindu women the right to remarry six months after a divorce or a spouse’s death. The Sindh Hindu Marriage Act also applies to Sikh marriages. The Punjab Sikh Anand Karaj Marriage Act allows local government officials in that province to register marriages between a Sikh man and Sikh woman solemnized by a Sikh Anand Karaj marriage registrar.
Some court judgments have considered the marriage of a non-Muslim woman to a non-Muslim man dissolved if she converts to Islam, although the marriage of a non-Muslim man who converts remains recognized.
The constitution directs the state to “safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of minorities,” to secure the well-being of the people irrespective of creed, and to discourage sectarian prejudices. It forbids discrimination against any religious community in the taxation of religious institutions. The National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR), an independent government-funded agency that reports to parliament, is required to receive petitions, conduct investigations, and request remediation of human rights abuses. The NCHR is also mandated to monitor the government’s implementation of human rights and review and propose legislation. It has quasi-judicial powers and may refer cases for prosecution but does not have arrest authority. A constitutional amendment devolves responsibility for minorities’ affairs, including religious minorities, to the provinces.
According to the constitution, there shall be no discrimination on the basis of religion in appointing individuals to government service, provided they are otherwise qualified. There is a 5 percent minimum quota for hiring religious minorities (primarily Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Kalash, and Parsis but excluding Shia and Ahmadi Muslims) at the federal and provincial levels of government.
The constitution prohibits discriminatory admission based on religious affiliation to any governmental educational institution. According to regulations, the only factors affecting admission to government schools are students’ grades and home provinces, although students must declare their religious affiliation on application forms. This declaration is also required for private educational institutions, including universities. Students who identify themselves as Muslims must declare in writing they believe Mohammed is the final prophet. Non-Muslims are required to have the head of their local religious communities verify their religious affiliation. There is no provision in the law for atheists.
The National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) designates religious affiliation on passports and requires religious information in national identity card and passport applications. Those wishing to be listed as Muslims must swear they believe Mohammed is the final prophet and must denounce the Ahmadiyya movement’s founder as a false prophet and his followers as non-Muslim. There is no option to state “no religion.” National identity cards are required for all citizens upon reaching the age of 18. Identification cards are used for voting, pension disbursement, social and financial inclusion programs, and other services.
The constitution requires the President and Prime Minister to be Muslims. All senior officials, including members of parliament, must swear an oath to protect the country’s Islamic identity. The law requires elected Muslim officials to swear an oath affirming their belief that Mohammed is the final prophet of Islam. This requirement effectively prohibits Ahmadi Muslims from holding elected office, as they recognize a prophet subsequent to Mohammed.
The constitution reserves seats for non-Muslim members in both the national and provincial assemblies. The 342-member National Assembly has 10 reserved seats for non-Muslims. The 104-member Senate has four reserved seats for non-Muslims, one from each province. In the provincial assemblies, there are three such reserved seats in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; eight in Punjab; nine in Sindh; and three in Balochistan. Political parties elected by the general electorate choose the minority individuals who hold these seats; they are not elected directly by the minority constituencies they represent.
The country is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and maintains two reservations: first, that ICCPR Article 3 regarding equal rights of men and women would be “applied as to be in conformity with Personal Law of the citizens and Qanoon-e-Shahadat Order, 1984 (Law of Evidence),” under which the in-court testimony of men in certain civil matters pertaining to contracts and financial obligations is given greater weight than that of women; and second, that ICCPR Article 25, on the equal right for citizens to take part in public service, would be subject to articles of the constitution mandating that the President and Prime Minister be Muslims.
Instances of torture and mistreatment by some police personnel were part of broader human rights concerns about police abuses against citizens of all faiths reported by local and international human rights organizations; some police agencies took steps to curb abuses by incorporating human rights curricula in training programs.
On January 29, an antiterrorism court in Lahore acquitted and ordered the release of 42 individuals accused of participating in the 2015 lynching of two Muslim men in Lahore. The killings took place during protests sparked by twin suicide bombings outside two churches there. The victims, burned to death by an angry mob, were Babar Noman and Hafiz Naeem.
According to civil society reports, there were many individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges and at least 35 under sentences of death, compared with 82 individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges and 29 under sentences of death in 2019. The government has never executed anyone specifically for blasphemy. According to data provided by the Center for Social Justice (CSJ), authorities accused at least 199 individuals of new blasphemy offenses during the year. Leaders in other NGOs agreed the actual number of blasphemy cases was likely higher, but uneven reporting and lack of media coverage in many areas made it difficult to identify an exact number. According to the CSJ, 2020 saw the highest number of blasphemy cases in a single year in the country’s history. Other NGOs also said that 2020 had seen an increase in blasphemy cases. Shia and Ahmadi Muslims were the most often accused, accounting respectively for 70 and 20 percent of all cases. Sunni Muslims made up 5 percent of all accused blasphemers, followed by Christians at 3.5 percent, and Hindus at 1 percent.
Courts issued two new death sentences for blasphemy and sentenced another individual to five years’ imprisonment. Other blasphemy cases continued without resolution. At least one individual was accused of spreading blasphemous content through social media under PECA. Civil society groups continued to state that the blasphemy laws disproportionately affected members of religious minority communities. Persons accused of blasphemy were often simultaneously charged with terrorism offenses.
According to NGOs and media reports, individuals convicted and sentenced to death in well-publicized blasphemy cases dating as far back as 2014 – including Nadeem James; Taimoor Raza; Junaid Hafeez; Mubasher, Ghulam, and Ehsan Ahmed; Shafqat Emmanuel; and Shagufta Kausar – remained in prison and continued to await action on their appeals. In all these cases, judges repeatedly delayed hearings, adjourned hearings without hearing arguments, or sent appeals to other judicial benches. Civil society and legal sources said judges were generally hesitant to decide blasphemy cases due to fear of violent retribution.
Human rights groups reported an increase in blasphemy cases and allegations against members of the Shia Muslim community. On September 5, the HRCP expressed concern over the surge in blasphemy cases against religious minorities, particularly the Shia community, and the potential for sectarian violence. The HRCP reported that more than 40 such cases were registered under the blasphemy laws in August alone.
On January 30, police arrested two Shia men in Tando Mohammed Khan, southern Sindh, and charged them with blasphemy. According to police, the content they posted on Facebook insulted the companions of Mohammed, which, they said, infuriated Sunni Muslims.
On April 14, police filed a blasphemy case against Shia singer Zamin Ali in Jamshoro, Sindh. The case was based on the complaint of a local shopkeeper who claimed Zamin Ali’s Facebook page contained a blasphemous song that hurt the religious sentiments of Sunni Muslims. By year’s end, police had dropped the case due to lack of evidence and pressure from activists.
On August 30, police charged Shia cleric Taqqi Jaffar with blasphemy for criticizing Mohammed’s companions during a Karachi Muharram procession. Jaffar made his remarks in Arabic, which were then aired on a popular Karachi news station, 24 News HD. Following complaints by some Sunni groups, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority temporarily suspended 24 News from broadcasting, citing Jaffar’s comments as “hate-inciting content.”
The blasphemy charges against Jaffar were followed by anti-Shia rallies throughout the country and at least three rallies in Karachi by Sunni groups on September 11 and 13 attended by thousands of individuals. Speakers at these rallies warned Shia of dire consequences, including beheadings, if they continued to blaspheme against the Prophet Mohammed’s companions.
On June 10, police arrested Sajid Soomro, a professor at Shah Abdul Latif University, in Khairpur, Sindh, on blasphemy charges. According to eyewitnesses, police officials in at least four police vans cordoned off the area and arrested Soomro, who initially resisted. Subsequently, Arfana Mallah, a professor at Sindh University Jamshoro who criticized Soomro’s arrest and the blasphemy laws, was herself accused of committing blasphemy and had to apologize publicly. Soomro was free on bail at year’s end, but the case was still pending in court.
NGOs, legal observers and religious minority representatives continued to raise concerns regarding the failure of lower courts to adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases, and the slow pace of adjudicating these cases, which led to some suspects remaining in detention for years as they waited their initial trial or appeals, and to some convicted persons spending years in prison before higher courts overturned their convictions and freed them for lack of evidence. According to legal advocacy groups, some lower courts continued to conduct proceedings in an intimidating atmosphere, with members of antiblasphemy groups, such as the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), often threatening the defendants’ attorneys, family members, and supporters. At other times, advocacy groups reported that blasphemy trials were held inside jails for security reasons, in which case the hearings were not public, resulting in a gain in immediate security but a loss of transparency. These observers said the general refusal of lower courts to hold timely hearings or acquit those accused persisted due to fear of reprisal and vigilantism. Legal observers also reported judges and magistrates often delayed or continued trials indefinitely to avoid confrontation with, or violence from, groups provoking protests.
While the law requires a senior police official to investigate any blasphemy charge before a complaint may be filed, a requirement that NGOs and legal observers stated helped contribute to an objective investigation and the dismissal of many blasphemy cases, some NGOs said police did not uniformly follow this procedure. There were some cases in which police received custody of the accused from a court for 14 days for a senior officer to carry out an investigation. At the same time, NGOs reported that sometimes lower-ranking police would file charges of blasphemy, rather than a senior police superintendent who had more authority to dismiss baseless claims, or that police would not carry out a thorough investigation. NGOs and legal observers also stated police often did not file charges against individuals who made false blasphemy accusations.
During the year, courts overturned some blasphemy convictions upon appeal and acquitted others after the accused had spent years in prison. On October 6, the Lahore High Court acquitted Sawan Masih, a Christian man sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2014, but Masih continued to face death threats and had to go into hiding with his family. His was the first acquittal for blasphemy since October 2018, when Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death in 2010, was acquitted. On December 15, the Lahore High Court acquitted a second Christian man, Imran Ghafur Masih, who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. Courts also penalized antiblasphemy groups. In January, an antiterrorism court sentenced 86 members of the TLP to 55-year prison terms each for taking part in violent protests following Bibi’s acquittal.
Police intervened on multiple occasions to quell mob violence directed at individuals accused of blasphemy. On September 10, police saved a Hindu trader from a mob that accused him of committing blasphemy and called for his death in Kashmore, Sindh. Several hundred protesters led by religious leaders took to the streets and chanted slogans against the alleged blasphemer. Police took him into protective custody and transferred him to a senior police officer’s office as the mob blocked the Indus Highway and demanded police hand over the alleged blasphemer. Also in September, according to law enforcement reports, Peshawar police rescued an Ahmadi family after a large mob gathered outside their home, accusing the family of preaching Ahmadi beliefs.
There were reported cases of government intervention and assistance from courts and law enforcement in situations of attempted kidnapping and forced conversion, although enforcement action against alleged perpetrators was rare. In January, after going missing, a 15-year-old Hindu girl appeared in a video with Ali Raza, a Muslim man, in which the two claimed they had willingly married and she had converted to Islam. Her family said she had been kidnapped and forcibly converted. In court proceedings, the girl retracted her video statement and said she wanted to return to her parents. In February, a court in Jacobabad, Sindh, ruled that the marriage with Raza was illegal under the 2013 Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act. On July 9, the Sindh High Court ordered that the girl could return to her Hindu parents. According to local sources, the high-profile case led to communal tensions in Jacobabad, the couple’s home district, and clerics from the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazal party publicly accused the girl of apostasy and called for her death. The girl remained in a government shelter for several months before returning to her parents.
On November 23, the Sindh High Court dissolved the marriage of an underage Christian girl to a 44-year-old Muslim man. According to her parents, the girl had been abducted and raped after being forcibly converted to Islam in Karachi. The Sindh High Court on October 27 originally upheld the validity of the marriage, citing the marriage certificate that indicated the girl was 18 years old, and ruling that she had converted to Islam and married of her own free will. Following petitions, the court reversed its decision and declared the marriage illegal under the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act and ordered the girl placed in a shelter after she refused to return to her parents. The court also barred her alleged husband and his family from meeting her and ordered police to arrest those who facilitated the marriage.
The Ministry of Interior maintained multitier schedules of religiously oriented groups it judged to be extremist or terrorist that were either banned or had their activities monitored and curtailed (Schedule 1) and individuals whose activities in the public sphere could also be curtailed, including during religious holidays such as Ashura (Schedule 4). On August 23, the Sindh provincial government barred 142 “firebrand” speakers and religious scholars from leaving their home districts for 60 days to avoid violent disturbances during Shia Muharram commemorations. These 142 individuals included both Shia and Sunni clerics who in the past had given controversial statements leading to sectarian tensions.
According to Ahmadiyya community leaders, authorities continued to target and harass Ahmadi Muslims for blasphemy, violations of “anti-Ahmadi laws,” and other crimes. Ahmadiyya leaders stated the ambiguous wording of the legal provision forbidding Ahmadis from directly or indirectly identifying themselves as Muslims enabled officials to bring charges against members of the community for using the standard Islamic greeting or for naming their children Mohammed.
Community leaders continued to report that the government hindered Ahmadis from obtaining legal documents and pressured community members to deny their beliefs by requiring individuals wishing to be listed as Muslim on identity cards and passports to swear Mohammed was the final prophet of Islam and the Ahmadiyya movement’s founder was a false prophet. Ahmadiyya community representatives reported the word “Ahmadi” was written on their passports if they identified themselves as such.
In 2018 the Islamabad High Court issued a judgment requiring citizens to declare an affidavit of faith to join the armed forces, judiciary, and civil services and directed parliament to amend laws to ensure Ahmadis did not use “Islamic” terms or have names associated with Islam. Neither the National Assembly nor the Senate had acted on the 2018 judgment by year’s end, but Ahmadiyya community representatives said that NADRA required Ahmadis to declare in an affidavit that they are non-Muslims to obtain a national identification card, another requirement of the high court judgment.
According to Ahmadiyya leaders, the government effectively disenfranchised their community by requiring voters to swear an oath affirming the “finality of the Prophethood of Mohammed,” something that they stated was against Ahmadi belief, in order to register as Muslims. Since voters who registered as Ahmadis were kept on a separate voter list, they said they were more exposed to threats and physical intimidation, and many Ahmadis continued their longstanding practice of boycotting elections.
Ahmadiyya Muslim community representatives continued to state that Ahmadi families were unable to register their marriages with local administrative bodies, known as union councils, since those councils considered Ahmadis to be outside the authority of the Muslim Family Law of 1961.
Some community representatives said Christians continued to face difficulties in registering marriages with Islamabad union councils because the councils claimed they had no authority to deal with unions recorded by Christian marriage registrars (usually church authorities). Parliament, church leaders, and advocates continued to debate the text of a draft law to govern Christian marriages nationwide, because the existing regulation dated from 1872. Members of parliament and officials of the Ministry of Human Rights and the Ministry of Law and Justice held consultations with church leaders from prominent Christian denominations and with NGO representatives, but the denominations, church leaders, and NGO representatives had not agreed on elements of the draft law pertaining to divorce and interfaith marriage by year’s end. NGOs lobbying for amendments to permit divorce in a wider range of circumstances praised the Ministry of Human Rights’ efforts to consult with stakeholders and the ministry’s overall efforts to accelerate progress on the bill.
Although the Sindh Hindu Marriage Act covers registration of Sikh marriages in that province, members of the Sikh community reportedly continued to seek a separate Sikh law so as not to be considered as Hindus for the purposes of the law. The Sindh provincial cabinet adopted regulations to implement the Sindh Hindu Marriage Act in December 2019, which provided more specific rules for implementation. In 2020, the provincial government began to implement the act, and NADRA began registering Hindu marriages in Sindh, according to Hindu community activists.
The government continued to prohibit citizens, regardless of religious affiliation, from traveling to Israel. Representatives of the Baha’i community said this policy particularly affected them because the Baha’i World Center – the spiritual and administrative center of the community – was in Haifa, Israel. Christian advocates also called on the government to allow them to travel to Israel.
According to media reports and law enforcement sources, in the weeks leading up to and during the Islamic month of Muharram – religiously significant for Shia Muslims – authorities at the federal and provincial levels again restricted the movement and activities of dozens of clerics on the Ministry of Interior’s Schedule 4 listing. According to civil society and media reports, the government restricted the movement and activities of these individuals because they were known for exacerbating sectarian tensions.
Some religious minority leaders stated the system of selecting minority parliamentarians through the internal deliberations of mainstream parties resulted in the appointment of party stalwarts or those who could afford to “buy the seats,” rather than legislators who genuinely represented minority communities. Others said parliamentarians occupying reserved seats had little influence in their parties and in the National Assembly because they did not have a voting constituency.
The requirement that Muslim elected officials swear an oath affirming their belief that Mohammed is the final prophet of Islam continued to discourage Ahmadi Muslims from seeking public office. To seek office, Ahmadis would be forced to do so because by law they are considered non-Muslims, even though they self-identify as Muslim.
The government continued to permit limited non-Muslim foreign missionary activity and to allow missionaries to proselytize as long as they did not preach against Islam and they acknowledged they were not Muslim. According to the government’s immigration website, the Ministry of Interior could grant visas to foreign missionaries invited by organizations registered in the country. The visas were valid for one year and allowed one reentry into the country per year, although it was understood by missionary sources that only “replacement” visas for those taking the place of departing missionaries were available for long-term missionaries seeking to enter the country for the first time. The website further stated extensions could be granted for two years with two reentries per year, excluding from India.
The government continued its warnings against blasphemy and other illegal content on social media through periodic print advertisements and text messages sent by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA). The text messages stated, “Sharing of blasphemy, pornography, terrorism, and other unlawful content on social media and the internet is illegal. Users are advised to report such content on email@example.com for action under PECA 16 (the 2016 PECA act).”
In a January press release, PTA stated it was “proactively playing its role in blocking/removal of unlawful content, with social media platforms being approached in this regard,” and it encouraged the public “to report such content directly to PTA and avoid sharing it on social media platforms and other websites.”
In February, the National Assembly introduced a draft law requiring internet and technology companies to open offices in Islamabad, locate their servers within the country, and remove “objectionable” internet content within a specified timeframe. According to technology companies and religious minority activists, the definition of objectionable content in the draft law was vague and subject to government interpretation.
On October 9, the PTA blocked the video-sharing social media application TikTok, based on what it called “immoral and indecent” content. Reactions to the PTA’s measure was mixed, with many social media users praising the decision to ban TikTok, but others concerned that the government could use this to target religious minorities. On October 19, the PTA lifted the block after the government received reassurances from the company that it would more closely regulate content, but NGOs and activists expressed concern that the government could use this authority to target religious minorities.
In November, the government finalized its Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content Rules 2020, which sought to codify the PTA’s authority to regulate content the government deemed “unlawful.” The rules not only enhanced the PTA’s ability to compel online content platforms such as Facebook, Google’s YouTube, Twitter, and Wikipedia to remove content but also extended the regulator’s purview to include local internet service providers that could also be held liable for such content. In late December, the PTA publicly used this new authority for the first time to demand the removal of “sacrilegious” content. The PTA cited public complaints against an “unauthentic version” of the Quran uploaded by the Ahmadiyya community on the Google Play Store and information that portrayed Mirza Masroor Ahmad as a Muslim on Wikipedia, which the PTA characterized as “misleading, wrong, deceptive, and deceitful.” The PTA successfully removed the same Quran application from the Apple Store in July. On December 24, the PTA issued a legal notice to two Ahmadi U.S. citizens requiring them to remove their website, trueislam.com, or face fines, sanctions, or potential prison sentences.
According to representatives of some minority religious groups, the government continued to allow most organized religious groups to establish places of worship and train members of the clergy. Similar to the previous year, some Sikh and Hindu places of worship reopened during the year. The Katas Raj Hindu temple was reopened for Hindus after renovation in the Chakwal district of Punjab. An additional six Sikh gurdwaras and seven Hindu temples were also reopened after renovation in Punjab.
In July, religious and right-wing parties criticized the government’s plan to permit construction of a new Hindu temple in Islamabad. Prime Minister Imran Khan gave verbal approval to build the temple following a request from the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Hindu and Christian members of the National Assembly. Then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government had granted the land to build the temple in 2016. Islamist political parties and Punjab Provincial Assembly speaker Chaudhry Elahi (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf – PTI – party) criticized the decision before written approval was issued, however, declaring new temples should never be built in an Islamic country. Opponents filed a petition to stop construction with the Islamabad High Court on June 29, and vandals destroyed the land’s boundary wall on July 5. On October 28, the Council on Islamic Ideology gave its approval for construction, ruling that Islamic law allows Hindus a place of worship, but noting there is no tradition for the government to provide funds for places of worships owned by private parties. The government announced it would seek a review from the Council on Islamic Ideology and at the end of the year it was unclear whether it still maintained its support for the temple.
On July 21, the government returned a 200-year-old Sikh gurdwara to the Sikh community in Quetta. The gurdwara had been used as a government-run girls’ school since 1947. Danesh Kumar, the adviser on minority affairs to the Balochistan Chief Minister, said the government had decided to hand over sacred sites of religious minorities in Balochistan to promote interfaith harmony.
On February 7, the district administration returned a century-old Hindu temple to the Hindu community in Zhob, Balochistan. The temple had also been part of a government-run school. Hindu community representatives welcomed the decision to return the temple to the community after 70 years.
Although there continued to be no official restriction on the construction of Ahmadiyya places of worship, according to Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders, local authorities regularly denied requisite construction permits, and Ahmadis remained forbidden to call them mosques.
Authorities provided enhanced security for Shia Muslim, Christian, and Hindu places of worship at various times throughout the year, including around particular religious holidays or in response to specific threats. In August and September, increased security was provided throughout the country for the Shia community’s Muharram processions. In Islamabad, the deputy inspector general of police said as many as 15,000 police, Rangers, and Frontier Corps personnel were involved. In Peshawar, security was increased around churches ahead of Christmas after security forces arrested four militants on December 17 who were allegedly planning an attack on Christmas Day, which is also celebrated as Quaid-i-Azam Day, the birthday of Pakistan’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Ahead of Christmas in Lahore, police deployed some 6,000 officers and officials at 623 churches. Police also deployed snipers and used closed-circuit television cameras and metal detectors to ensure the security of churches and Christmas markets. In Sindh, police provided enhanced security at churches and Hindu temples, especially in Karachi, on eves of festivals such as Christmas and Diwali.
Legal experts and NGOs continued to state that the full legal framework for minority rights remained unclear. While the Ministry of Law and Justice was officially responsible for ensuring the legal rights of all citizens, in practice, the Ministry for Human Rights continued to assume primary responsibility for the protection of the rights of religious minorities. The NCHR was also mandated to conduct investigations of allegations of human rights abuses, but legal sources said the commission had little power to enforce its requests. Since 2019, the NCHR has been without a mandate for a second four-year term and lacked newly appointed commissioners, making it effectively nonfunctional throughout the year.
Members of religious minority communities said there continued to be an inconsistent application of laws safeguarding minority rights and enforcement of protections of religious minorities at both the federal and provincial levels by the Ministry of Law and Justice, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Human Rights. Religious minority community members also stated the government was inconsistent in safeguarding against societal discrimination and neglect, and that official discrimination against Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Ahmadi Muslims persisted to varying degrees, with Ahmadi Muslims experiencing the worst treatment.
In May, the Cabinet approved a Religious Affairs Ministry proposal establishing a National Commission for Minorities housed within the ministry. The proposal named a prominent Hindu business owner and ruling PTI party leader as the commission’s chair, along with other Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Parsi, and Kalash members. The commission also included two Sunni Muslim clerics and senior civil servants from the Ministries of Interior, Law and Justice, Human Rights, Federal Education and Professional Training, Religious Affairs, and the Council of Islamic Ideology.
The plan followed a 2014 Supreme Court decision that ordered the government to take steps to ensure the rights of minorities and promote a culture of religious and social tolerance, but religious freedom activists and civil society groups said the proposal was “toothless” and raised concerns regarding the Religious Affairs Ministry’s lack of public consultation, the limited powers of the proposed body, and the ultimate decision to exclude Ahmadis. Information Minister Shibli Faraz’s announcement that the Cabinet had decided against including an Ahmadi Muslim representative on the new commission contributed to a wave of hate speech against Ahmadis, according to community representatives. The Religious Affairs Ministry later issued a statement saying Ahmadis would not be included on the commission, “given the religious and historical sensitivity” of including Ahmadis in government institutions. Ahmadi Muslim leaders said they had never been approached about participating in the commission and would never join a body that required them to identify as non-Muslims.
The Punjab Provincial Assembly also unanimously passed a resolution in May insisting that the federal National Commission on Minorities not include a representative from the Ahmadi community until community leaders submitted in writing that they accepted their status as non-Muslims under the constitution. The resolution stated, “This House demands that if the chief of Qadianis [a derogatory term for Ahmadis] submits in writing declaring that they accept the Constitution of Pakistan and accept their status as non-Muslims, then we will have no objection to their inclusion into the Commission.”
Speaker of the Punjab Provincial Assembly and Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) party leader Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi made numerous statements denouncing Ahmadis and any effort to undermine the status of Mohammed as Islam’s final prophet. The Punjab provincial government adopted three anti-Ahmadi measures: in May, a resolution that Ahmadis not be permitted to join the federal government’s National Commission for Minorities unless they “acknowledge” they are not Muslims; in June, a new curriculum law that requires school textbooks to state the finality of the Prophet Mohammed; and in July, the “Protection of the Foundations of Islam” bill giving the provincial government authority to censor objectionable materials and inspect any publishing house or private home for banned Ahmadi literature.
Lawmakers from the National Assembly, the Sindh Provincial Assembly, and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provincial Assembly also adopted resolutions requiring the title “last of the prophets” to be used when referring to Mohammed. Video footage from a National Assembly session in July showed opposition lawmakers immediately criticizing Prime Minister Khan when he failed to use the phrase after speaking the name of the Prophet Mohammed in an address to parliament.
In April, police arrested Ramzan Bibi, an Ahmadi Muslim woman, after a neighbor accused her of blasphemy against Mohammed – a crime that carries the death penalty – in an argument over Bibi’s charitable donation to a non-Ahmadi mosque. Bibi remained in custody at year’s end.
In May, the Federal Investigative Agency raided the Lahore home of Ahmadi missionary and youth worker Rohan Ahmad, arresting him on charges of cybercrime, blasphemy against the Quran, and propagating the Ahmadi faith through a WhatsApp group in September 2019. At year’s end, he was still being held at Camp Jail, Lahore, and had not been charged
In July, the Lahore High Court Bar Association (LHCBA) demanded that the federal interior ministry prevent the Ahmadi community from sacrificing animals on Eid al-Adha. In a letter written to the Interior Minister, the LHCBA quoted the section of the constitution stating that Ahmadis are non-Muslim.
In August, a case was opened against three Ahmadi men after an official of a religious seminary approached police complaining that the men sacrificed an animal on Eid al-Adha. The complainant said the three men “hurt the belief of Muslims” by engaging in Islamic rituals as non-Muslims. No arrests were made, and no one was charged.
In October, Punjab police arrested three Ahmadis for using Islamic symbols and practices in their mosque. The charges carry up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine. A complainant filed a criminal charge against them on May 3, triggering the police investigation. As of year’s end, the case was awaiting prosecution.
Government officials and politicians attended and spoke at multiple Khatm-e-Nabuwat (Finality of Prophethood) conferences held in major cities and at religious sites around the country. These conferences were organized by groups that stated they were defending the teaching that Mohammed is the final prophet but were often characterized by both secular and Ahmadi critics as engaging in hate speech against Ahmadi Muslims.
On September 7, the JUI-F party held a large Khatm-e-Nabuwat conference in Peshawar, with party leaders and national and provincial parliamentarians in attendance. At the conference, JUI-F national leader Fazl ur Rehman praised the lawyers who were defending the teenager accused of killing U.S. citizen Tahir Naseem, a self-proclaimed Ahmadi, in Peshawar and blamed Western nations for supporting Ahmadi Muslims. That same day, a Punjab Provincial Assembly lawmaker from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Mohammed Ilyas Chinyoti, participated in an international Khatm-e-Nabuwat conference in the Chanab Nagar area of Punjab near the Ahmadiyya Muslim community’s headquarters. Speakers at that conference repeatedly used anti-Ahmadi rhetoric.
The Ministry of Human Rights and the Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training held consultations with minority faith representatives during the year in a review of textbooks for derogatory material.
In June, the Punjab Provincial Assembly unanimously passed the Curriculum and Text Book Board Amendment Bill, which Governor Chaudhary Muhammad Sarwar signed into law. The law requires clearance from the Muttahida Ulema Board, a Punjab-based advisory council of religious scholars from multiple Muslim schools of thought, to publish content on Islam in school textbooks, which Assembly Speaker Elahi said was necessary to “stop the publishing of blasphemous material” against Mohammed and his companions. Civil society representatives said the bill targets Ahmadis, who do not have representation on the ulema board and who are barred by the constitution and the penal code from identifying as Muslims. Some politicians acknowledged privately the bill was intended to ensure textbooks identify Mohammed as the final prophet, thereby excluding Ahmadis from the definition of Islam taught in public schools.
On July 22, the Punjab Provincial Assembly passed the Protection of Foundation of Islam Bill, which prohibits the printing and publication of objectionable material in the province. Governor Sarwar did not sign the bill, which was promoted by the PML-Q party, noting controversy about its provisions and concerns that it could be seen as anti-Shia. According to a Punjab government official, Sarwar had no intention of signing the bill until there was a consensus that it would not harm religious minorities. Other government officials, including Prime Minister Khan, advised Sarwar against signing the bill, according to a Lahore-based journalist. Among the restrictions outlined in the bill, publishers, editors, and translators would be barred from printing or publishing any book and material containing statements or anything deemed to be of a blasphemous nature. The bill would also require the words “last of the prophets” to be written after the name of Mohammed and specific honors for his companions revered in the Shia community (“may Allah be pleased with them,” rather than “peace be upon them”). Ahmadi community leaders said they saw the requirement to designate Mohammed as last of the prophets as directly targeting them. Shia leaders, meanwhile, denounced the specific honors prescribed by the bill to Mohammed’s companions, which they said risked stoking discord between Shia and Sunnis, given their fundamental disagreements over some of the companions’ status within Islam.
The law also would make “desecration” (including physical destruction of books or symbols, along with verbal, written, or online actions perceived to be insults) of any prophet, any of the four divine books (the Quran, Torah, Psalms of David, and Gospel of Jesus), any family and companions of the Prophet Mohammed, as well as abetting or glorifying terrorists, or promoting sectarianism in any book, punishable with a maximum of a five-year jail term and a substantial fine of up to 500,000 Pakistani rupees ($3,100). According to the bill, all publishers would be required to submit to the Directorate General Public Relations, the provincial government authority with jurisdiction over printing presses and publishing houses, four copies of every edition of each title they print. The directorate would be empowered to inspect printing presses, bookstores, and publishing houses and confiscate books before or after they are printed if they are judged to contain “objectionable” content.
While schools were required to teach Islamic studies and the Quran to Muslim students, sources reported many non-Muslim students were also required to participate because their schools did not offer parallel courses in their own religious beliefs or ethics. The government did not permit Ahmadis to teach Islamic studies in public schools. Members of religious minority communities stated public schools gave Muslim students bonus grade points for memorizing the Quran, but there were no analogous opportunities for extra academic credit available for religious minority students.
Minority religious leaders stated members of their communities continued to experience discrimination in admission to colleges and universities. Ahmadi representatives said the wording of the declaration students were required to sign on their applications for admission to universities continued to prevent Ahmadis from declaring themselves as Muslims. Their refusal to sign the statement meant they were automatically disqualified from fulfilling the admissions requirements. The government said Ahmadis could qualify for admission if they did not claim to be Muslims.
There were continued reports that some madrassahs taught violent extremist doctrine, which the government sought to curb through madrassah registration and curriculum reform.
Members of religious minorities, particularly lower-caste Hindus, complained of forceful evictions from their homes and villages by individuals desiring their land with assistance from government officials. On July 13, hundreds of members of the Bheel community, including women and children, marched and demonstrated against the demolition of their homes by revenue officials whom they said were in collusion with an influential landlord of the area in Mithi, Sindh. The protesters said that when they opposed the illegal evictions of villagers, they were charged in “fake” cases by revenue officials. They complained that Dalits, who are considered to be the lowest in the traditional Hindu caste structure, were being targeted and subjected to violence and torture in Thar and other areas. For example, in March, media reported that a woman from Meghwar committed suicide after being repeatedly raped by a man of an upper-caste Hindu clan in Deeplo, Sindh. The woman’s family said she was pregnant at the time of her suicide and that police initially refused to file charges against the man because of his caste.
Most minority religious groups said they continued to face discrimination in government hiring. According to religious minority activists, provincial governments also often failed to meet quotas for hiring religious minorities into the civil service.
Minority rights activists said most government employment advertisements for janitorial staff continued to list being non-Muslim as a requirement. Minority rights activists criticized these advertisements as discriminatory and insulting. For example, the Lahore Waste Management Company continued to employ mainly Christian street sweepers, which HRCP criticized as the result of employment advertisements continuing to specify that religious minorities should apply. Citing a sanitation job advertisement issued by the Sindh provincial government, HRCP stated such advertisements infringed on human dignity and violated the constitutional guarantee of equality of all citizens. In May, the New York Times reported the issue, which was subsequently raised by international human rights NGOs.
Representatives of religious minorities said a “glass ceiling” continued to prevent their promotion to senior government positions, but one NGO also stated that due to insufficient higher education opportunities compared to the majority religious community, few religious minorities met the qualifications to apply for these positions. Although there were no official obstacles to the advancement of minority religious group members in the military, they said that in practice, non-Muslims rarely rose above the rank of colonel and were not assigned to senior positions.
Print and broadcast media outlets continued to publish and broadcast anti-Ahmadi rhetoric. In May, after the government announced that Ahmadis would be excluded from the National Commission for Minorities, Religious Affairs Minister Qadri said on a popular television show, “Anyone supporting Ahmadis is not a Muslim.” Ahmadiyya Muslim community representatives stated that the Urdu-language press frequently printed hate speech in news stories and editorials, some of which could be considered as inciting anti-Ahmadi violence. Inflammatory anti-Ahmadi rhetoric continued to exist on social media and was at times spread by senior members of mainstream political parties.
Following the killing of U.S. citizen Tahir Naseem in July, JUI-F leader Mufti Kifayatullah celebrated the accused killer for his act of “justice.” Some political figures, including the ruling PTI Party’s Sindh provincial president Haleem Adil Sheikh, who is also a member of the Sindh Provincial Assembly, changed their social media profile pictures to that of Naseem’s killer.
On January 26, a local court sentenced four young boys, who had confessed to vandalizing a Hindu temple in Sindh’s Tharparkar district, to a juvenile center in Hyderabad. The incident was the first attack on a Hindu temple in Tharparkar in more than 30 years. Minority lawmakers and civil society activists reacted strongly to the attack, stating the boys had been instigated by local Muslim clerics.
Civil society members reported authorities took no action to prevent attacks on Ahmadi mosques or punish assailants who demolished, damaged, forcibly occupied, or set fire to Ahmadi mosques. Local authorities did not allow the repair or unsealing of Ahmadi mosques damaged or demolished by rioters in previous years. In February, a crowd occupied and vandalized a 100-year-old Ahmadi mosque in Punjab. In July, residents in the Sheikpura District of Punjab damaged Ahmadi gravestones.
Community leaders continued to state the government did not take adequate action to protect its poorest citizens, including religious minorities, such as Christian and Hindu Dalits, from bonded labor practices. In May, Daniel Masih appealed to the court in the Sargodha District of Punjab, urging authorities to rescue his brother Bashir and his family from bonded labor under a Muslim landlord. Hindu Dalits remained vulnerable to human rights violations and pressure by perpetrators to withdraw police cases. On September 30, media reported that a 17-year-old girl from a Hindu Dalit community committed suicide after having been gang-raped a year earlier by Muslim men and subsequently blackmailed by them in Tharparkar, Sindh. Three suspects were arrested for the rape but were released on bail, and the girl’s family said they harassed and pressured the girl to withdraw the case.
Actions of Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors
According to civil society and media, armed sectarian groups connected to organizations banned by the government, including the LeJ, TTP, and the once-banned anti-Shia group SSP, continued to be responsible for violence and other abuses against religious minorities. Groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States and other governments, such as ISIS, also committed violent acts. Among the targets of these attacks were Shia Muslims, particularly the predominantly Shia Hazara community.
According to the SATP, the number of sectarian attacks by armed groups continued to decrease, corresponding with an overall decline in terrorist attacks. Data on sectarian attacks varied because no standardized definition existed of what constituted a sectarian attack among reporting organizations. According to the SATP, at least 10 persons were killed and three injured in 10 incidents of sectarian violence by extremist groups during the year. These attacks targeted gatherings of Shia individuals.
There were multiple reports of targeted killings of Shia Muslims in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, although because religion and ethnicity were often closely related, it was difficult to categorize some incidents as being solely based on religious identity. In September, unidentified gunmen killed two prominent members of the local Shia community in the Kohat District of that province. This was part of an increase in anti-Shia activity that month nationwide that included the shooting of a prominent Shia religious leader in Punjab’s Mandi Bahauddin District and the shooting of a Shia employee of the National Bank of Pakistan in Islamabad. On October 11, unidentified militants abducted six Shia pilgrims near the Pakistan-Iran border region of Panjgur, in Balochistan. The six, all from Karachi, were returning from a pilgrimage in Iran; they remained missing at year’s end.
According to the SATP and media reports, antiterrorism courts convicted and sentenced several individuals affiliated with terrorist organizations and involved in past sectarian attacks and targeted killings. On June 25, an antiterrorism court sentenced five al-Qa’ida militants to 16 years’ imprisonment each for terrorist financing and possession of explosives. The militants were also convicted for running an al-Qa’ida media cell in Gujranwala. On July 27, an antiterrorism court sentenced a member of SSP to 13 years’ imprisonment for facilitating terrorist activities.
The Hindu community in Sindh and Balochistan remained vulnerable to targeted killings and kidnappings for ransom. On July 19, members of the Hindu community staged a sit-in in Khuzdar, Balochistan, to protest the July 18 killing of local Hindu trader Nanak Ram by unidentified assailants in the Wadh area of Khuzdar District. On July 31, Hindu business owner and member of the Khairpur Chamber of Commerce and Industries Raja Kishan Chand was killed by unknown gunmen in that city. In a statement, the Pakistan Hindu Council condemned the killing as well as two other July incidents of violence towards Hindu citizens in the district.
According to the nonprofit Middle East Media Research Institute, the December edition of the Urdu language TTP magazine Journal of The Tehreek-E-Taliban Pakistan blamed “the Jews and their puppets” for the COVID-19 pandemic and for harassing Muslims during the pandemic. The author of the article wrote that COVID-19 had been hidden since the 1960s to be “used against Muslims.”
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Targeted killings of Shia and Ahmadi Muslims and violence and discrimination against Christians, Hindus, and Ahmadi Muslims continued to occur. Throughout the year, unidentified individuals assaulted and killed Shia and Ahmadis in attacks sources believed to be religiously motivated. The attackers’ relationship to organized terrorist groups was often unclear.
Shia Hazaras in Quetta, Balochistan, continued to express concern about targeted killings taking place for the last several years. Although the government continued to implement elevated security measures around Hazara neighborhoods in Quetta, some Hazara community members continued to state that these measures had turned their neighborhoods into isolated ghettos.
In July, a teenager killed U.S. citizen Tahir Naseem in a Peshawar courtroom, where Naseem was on trial for blasphemy. The young man and two coconspirators were indicted, taken into government custody, and were awaiting trial at year’s end. The 16-year-old suspect was being tried as a juvenile; the two coconspirators were a prayer leader and a young lawyer involved in the blasphemy complaint against Naseem. Many social media users celebrated Naseem’s killing. At least three top Twitter trends praised the killer and called him the “savior” and “pride” of Pakistan. Twitter and WhatsApp users circulated graphic images and video footage from the courtroom, depicting Naseem slumped over a chair and crowds of men ignoring the body and seeming to congratulate the killer.
Following Naseem’s death, there were a series of additional violent incidents targeting Ahmadis, and Ahmadiyya community members said they felt in more danger than ever before. Unknown assailants shot a Peshawar trader, also an Ahmadiyya community member, near his business on August 12. Police stated they believed he was targeted because of his religious beliefs. On October 5, also in Peshawar, Professor Naeemuddin Khattak, a member of the Ahmadiyya community, died after being shot while driving home from work. Khattak’s brother, who witnessed the killing, named two suspects in his criminal complaint, including a friend of Khattak – a lecturer from the University of Agriculture in Peshawar – with whom Khattak had had a heated religious argument on October 4. On November 9, also in Peshawar, an 82-year-old retired Ahmadi government worker was killed by unknown gunmen while waiting for a bus. Ahmadiyya community leaders said he was targeted due to his religious beliefs.
On November 20 in a rural area of Punjab, a teenage boy killed Ahmadi doctor Tahir Ahmad and seriously wounded three of his family members. On November 21, Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari posted a tweet calling for the government to protect all its citizens. Ahmadiyya community members said they were surprised by this instance of a senior government official condemning anti-Ahmadi violence, but added that they do not expect it to become the new norm. The special assistant to the Prime Minister for religious harmony, Tahir Ashrafi, said it was “the responsibility of the government and court to punish” the perpetrator in a televised interview.
In its 2020 World Watch List report, the international NGO Open Doors listed Pakistan, noting that Christians face “extreme persecution in every area of their lives, with converts from Islam facing the highest levels.” According to Open Doors, all Christians in the country “are considered second-class citizens, inferior to Muslims.” The NGO stated Christians are often given jobs “perceived as low, dirty and dishonorable, and can even be victims of bonded labor.” The NGO also said that Christian girls in the country were increasingly “at risk of abduction and rape, often forced to marry their attackers and coerced into converting to Islam.”
AsiaNews, the official press agency of the Roman Catholic Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, reported that two members of a Christian family were shot and wounded after buying a house in a neighborhood inhabited primarily by Muslims on June 4 in the Sawati Phatak Colony of Peshawar. Police arrested several members of a neighboring Muslim family in connection with the incident. Salman Khan, the head of the Muslim family, remained at large. According to AsiaNews, once Khan learned the family was Christian, he ordered them to leave immediately, because “Christians are enemies of Islam.” After harassing the family for a few days, Khan gave them a 24-hour ultimatum to leave. When he and his sons returned to the house, they shot and wounded two of the Christian family members.
Civil society activists and media reported young Christian and Hindu women being abducted and raped by Muslim men. Victims said their attackers singled them out as vulnerable due to their religious minority identity. According to the NGOs Center for Legal Aid, Assistance, and Settlement (CLAAS) and the Pakistan Center for Law and Justice, there were also reports of religious minority women being physically attacked by men. On October 9, a Hindu teacher was attacked by a Muslim man with an axe on her way to her school in Mithi, Sindh. The teacher survived the attack and told media the man had been following and harassing her for days. Despite her filing a complaint, police did not open a case initially. The man was later arrested by police after the Sindh education secretary intervened in the case.
The HRCP said forced conversions of young women of minority faiths, often lower-caste Hindu girls from rural Sindh province, continued to occur. On October 13, according to local media reports, Reeta Kumari, a pregnant Dalit Hindu woman, told the Sindh High Court in Sukkur that she had been abducted by a Muslim man, Rafique Domki, in Islamkot. She said Domki had taken her to Balochistan two months earlier and held her there until police rescued her. She denied her abductor’s claim that she had willfully married him and converted to Islam, and instead asked the court to allow her to reunite with her Hindu husband and minor son. The court ordered police to hand over the woman to her Hindu husband and no police or court action was taken against Domki.
Christian activists also stated young women from their communities were vulnerable to forced conversions. On February 22, a Christian woman from Lahore fled to a shelter after a Muslim factory worker forced her to convert to Islam and marry him. The woman’s mother filed a police report against the abductor, who was subsequently arrested.
On July 22, Saeed Amanat, a Muslim man, abducted a 15-year-old Christian girl on her way to church in Faisalabad, Punjab. The girl’s family said they feared she had been forced to convert and marry a Muslim. On August 22, another teenage Christian escaped from the home of Mohamad Nakash, a Muslim who had kidnapped her in April and had been holding her since. On September 8, Mehwish Hidayat, a Christian woman, was reunited with her family after being abducted by a Muslim man and spending three months in captivity.
Also in September, a Karachi court issued an arrest warrant for Abdul Jabbar, a Muslim man who allegedly abducted, forcibly married, and converted a teenage Christian girl in Karachi in 2019. She was taken to Dera Ghazi Khan, in Punjab, to avoid Sindh provincial law, which bans marriage of girls younger than 18. At year’s end, she and her alleged husband had not appeared in court in Karachi, despite multiple court orders to do so.
International and local media, as well as Christian activists, reported that young Christian women, many of them minors, were specifically targeted by Chinese human traffickers because of their poverty and vulnerability. The traffickers told pastors and parents they would arrange marriages to Chinese men who had supposedly converted to Christianity, after which the women were taken to China, abused, and in some cases, sexually trafficked. Reports indicated parents and pastors were frequently paid by the traffickers for the women, and that some pastors were complicit in the trafficking.
Members of civil society reported that converts from Islam lived in varying degrees of secrecy for fear of violent retribution from family members or society at large.
Representatives of the Kalash, an indigenous group in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, continued to report their youth were under pressure from Muslim schoolteachers and others to convert from their traditional beliefs.
Throughout the year, Islamic organizations with varying degrees of political affiliation held conferences and rallies to support the doctrine of Khatm-e-Nabuwat. The events were often covered by English and local-language media and featured anti-Ahmadiyya rhetoric which Ahmadiyya community representatives said could incite violence against Ahmadis. In addition to the large JUI-F conference and rallies, the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami also held a large event in September in Peshawar; both parties criticized the PTI-led national government for failing to enforce Islamic law. The TLP and Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, a banned organization under the National Counterterrorism Authority’s Schedule-I list, also held smaller rallies. The rallies occurred days after a unanimous resolution by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provincial Assembly condemning anti-Islam statements and the republication in France of the Charlie Hebdo cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammed.
In September, several religious groups from the Deobandi and Barelvi schools of Sunni Islam organized a series of rallies in Karachi to denounce Shia “defamation” of revered Sunni religious figures. The rallies came after police charged Shia cleric Taqi Jaffar with blasphemy on August 30 for criticizing two companions of Mohammed during a Karachi Muharram procession.
Ahmadis continued to report widespread societal harassment and discrimination against community members, including physical attacks, destruction of homes and personal property, and threats intended to force Ahmadis to abandon their jobs or towns. On August 12, armed gunmen attacked the house of Ahmadi Muslim Syed Naeem Ahmad Bashir in the Sahiwal District of Punjab, firing into the courtyard at night, where they reportedly expected the family to be sleeping. The family was in another location, however, and survived. On August 20, attackers attempted to kill Sheikh Nasir Ahmad, an Ahmadi man from the Lalamusa area of central Punjab.
In October, members of a State Youth Parliament team in Gujranwala defaced a public portrait of the country’s first Nobel laureate, physicist Dr. Abdus Salam, an Ahmadi. The group also painted slogans insulting the Ahmadiyya community. On October 22, a private business school, the Institute of Business Administration in Karachi, cancelled an online seminar that was to feature U.S.-based Ahmadi economist Dr Atif Mian, citing pressure by “extremists.”
Christian religious freedom activists continued to report widespread discrimination against Christians in private employment. They said Christians had difficulty finding jobs other than those involving menial labor, with some advertisements for menial jobs specifying they were open only to Christian applicants. In January, two Christians, Kamran Sandhu and Nauman Aslam, applied for seats reserved for minorities in the Gujranwala Electric Power Company (GEPCO) in Punjab. Both passed the recruitment test and had successful interviews but were denied appointment by the assistant manager. CLAAS helped both file an antidiscrimination petition in the Lahore High Court. The court ordered the chief executive officer of GEPCO to hire the two Christians, but he did not do so. The CLAAS legal team filed a contempt of court application, but the Lahore High Court dismissed the plea. At the end of the year, CLAAS was planning to take the case to the Federal Ombudsman.
Observers reported that English-language media continued to cover issues facing religious minorities in an objective manner, but Urdu-language media continued to show bias in reporting on minority religious groups, including multiple instances in which media censored references to Ahmadis on talk shows, used inflammatory language, or made inappropriate references to minorities. In a September editorial, the largest Urdu daily, Nawa-i-Waqt, described the 1974 legislation declaring Ahmadis officially non-Muslim as a historic day in the country’s history. The high circulation daily Jang also published a lengthy editorial on the struggle to declare Ahmadis as non-Muslims in a special magazine edition.
Human rights and religious freedom activists and members of minority religious groups continued to report that they exercised caution and, occasionally, self-censorship when speaking in favor of religious tolerance because of a societal climate of intolerance and fear. Some activists reported receiving death threats because of their work.
Hindu activists in Sindh reported discrimination against the Hindu community during COVID-19 food-relief efforts by private charities. In April, some members of the Hindu community in Karachi’s Lyari area were denied food packages provided by a local charity, according to local sources.
Reports continued of attacks on religious minorities’ holy places, cemeteries, and religious symbols. In July, police arrested four men for destroying a 1,700-year-old Gandharan civilization statue of Buddha in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after a video showing one of the men hammering the statue went viral on social media. The four men were charged with defacing antiquities. On October 25, a Hindu temple was vandalized in Nagarparkar, Sindh, during the nine-day Navratri celebrations. Several statues were destroyed. Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah Imran Ismail issued a statement condemning the attacks.
On October 20, HRCP reported that an Ismaili Muslim mosque in Ghizer was attacked by unknown assailants, who opened fire on the building. No casualties were reported.
On December 30, a mob estimated at 1,000 people incited by a cleric attacked an historic Hindu temple site in Karak District, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, destroying the shrine of Hindu saint Shri Paramhans Jee Maharaj and an adjacent building under construction. Police arrested more than 45 JUI-F followers and clerics involved in the destruction. Government officials condemned the incident, suspended more than 100 police officials for failure to stop the mob, and ordered the temple rebuilt.
On October 7, Dr. Qibla Ayaz, then chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology, inaugurated a national code of conduct to promote interreligious harmony in the face of increased sectarian violence and mistreatment of religious minorities. Islamic and minority religious leaders endorsed the code. Ayaz also spoke at a seminar on interfaith harmony at the cultural center at the National Library of Pakistan in Islamabad.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Charge d’Affaires, consuls general, other embassy officers, and visiting senior U.S. officials engaged government officials and senior advisors to the Prime Minister, including the Minister for Human Rights, and officials from the Ministry of Law and Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training, and Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony to discuss blasphemy law reform; laws concerning Ahmadi Muslims; the need to better protect members of religious minority communities; sectarian relations; and religious respect.
During his February visit to Karachi, the Department of State Special Adviser for Religious Minorities told students and faculty at Karachi University’s Department of Islamic Studies, “An inclusive society creates more space for trade and prosperity.” The audience applauded his comments about the protection of religious freedom for Muslims in the United States. Following the address, the Special Adviser convened an interfaith roundtable discussion at Karachi University, which included Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Parsis. The event received positive coverage in local media. The Special Adviser went on to meet with federal and provincial government officials and civil society leaders in Islamabad and Lahore.
Three U.S. government cultural centers in Sindh Province and Islamabad held events to promote religious freedom. On January 21, the center in Khairpur hosted a Religious Freedom Day event at which 25 students discussed the importance of being able to practice religion freely in Pakistan. On January 22, the Hyderabad center hosted an event on educational institutions’ roles in promoting tolerance and creating peaceful communities. Sanjay Mathrani, a former participant in a U.S. government exchange program, was a featured speaker. On August 24, the Karachi center hosted a talk entitled, “How to Develop Religious Tolerance and Empathy,” with Syed Ali Hameed from the Shaoor Foundation and a consulate general officer.
Embassy officers met with civil society leaders, experts, and journalists to stress the need to protect the rights of religious minorities and to continue to support measures that decrease sectarian violence. They also met with representatives of other embassies, leaders of religious communities, NGOs, and legal experts working on religious freedom issues to discuss ways to increase respect among religions and to enhance dialogue. Department of State programs, including outreach activities such as speakers and workshops, helped to promote peacebuilding among religious and community leaders. The embassy and consulates highlighted the principles of religious freedom and examples of interfaith dialogue in the United States on their social media platforms throughout the year.
In July, the Department of State issued a statement following the killing of Tahir Naseem expressing outrage over the killing and noting that Naseem had been lured from his home in the United States by individuals who used blasphemy laws to entrap him. The statement also called on the government to “immediately reform its often abused blasphemy laws and its court system, which allow such abuses to occur, and to ensure that the suspect is prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
In an official tweet in November following the killing of Ahmadi physician Tahir Ahmad, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom said the killing was “the latest in a series of recent killings targeting the Ahmadiyya community. We call upon authorities to ensure the safety of all Pakistanis.”
On December 2, the Secretary of State redesignated Pakistan as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom, and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interests of the United States.
The constitution provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to change religion. The law recognizes four religions: Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity. The constitution and other laws accord Buddhism the “foremost place” among the country’s religious faiths and commit the government to protecting it while respecting the rights of religious minorities. In his February 24 report to the UN Human Rights Council on his visit to the country in 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ahmed Shaheed, said that he observed “significant gaps” in “upholding accountability and access to justice as well as ensuring non-recurrence of human rights violations.” He also said that religious minorities faced restrictions in the manifestation of their religion or belief, such as proselytization, conversion, and building of places of worship, in addition to numerous incidents of violent attacks. A government investigation continued into the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks that targeted Christian churches and luxury hotels, killing 268 persons, including five U.S. citizens, and injured more than 500. As of December, 135 suspects remained in custody, including three facing U.S. terrorism charges. According to police, 2,299 individuals were arrested overall. According to representatives of minority religious communities and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), government officials continued to engage in systematic discrimination against some religious minorities. Reports stated that local government officials and police responded minimally or not at all to numerous incidents of religiously motivated discrimination and violence against minorities. Religious minorities reported government officials and police often sided with Buddhists and did not prevent harassment of religious minorities and their places of worship. Religious rights groups reported instances in which police continued to prohibit, impede, and attempt to close Christian and Muslim places of worship, citing government regulations, which legal scholars said did not apply. Media reports stated police and military personnel were complicit in allowing Buddhists to build religious structures on Hindu sites. In March, the Ministry of Health (MOH) made cremation compulsory for COVID-19 victims, denying Muslims who died from the virus the Islamic tradition of burying their dead. Between April and November, four UN special rapporteurs, including the Special Rapporteur for Religious Freedom, in addition to the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka (MCSL) and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, expressed deep concerns about the government’s policy and asked it to reconsider in light of World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines permitting burial or cremation for COVID-19 victims. The Government Medical Officers Association called for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to convene a panel of experts to examine the issue. In May, the country’s two major Muslim political parties, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) as well as several civil society activists, petitioned the Supreme Court, challenging the government’s policy; at year’s end, the court had not determined whether it would consider the case. In November, Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi informed parliament that the government had appointed a committee to investigate the matter, and media reported that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa agreed to allow burials for Muslims who died from COVID-19 and asked health authorities to identify appropriate areas, but no official announcement of a policy change had been made by year’s end, and media and civil society groups reported that forcible cremations continued. In December, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal against the mandatory cremation practice filed by 11 Muslim and Christian activists. The court gave no explanation for its unanimous refusal to hear the case. At year’s end, the government maintained the policy despite increasing domestic and international calls to abandon it.
During the year, the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) documented 50 incidents of attacks on churches, intimidation of and violence against pastors and their congregations, and obstruction of worship services, compared with 94 in 2019. In January and February, groups led by Buddhist monks accosted evangelical Christians on their way to church or interrupted church services, demanding they end immediately and threatening worshippers. In three instances, the crowd assaulted pastors, their family members, or congregants. In two of these cases, police said the pastors were to blame for holding worship services; in one case, police accused a pastor of breaching the peace. NCEASL reported few arrests and none involving Buddhist monks. Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to report incidences of discrimination and abuse and lengthy delays in court action on cases involving them. In September, a magistrate issued arrest warrants for two men accused of assaulting four members of Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2019. In October, police reported that the attorney general would be filing a complaint against Buddhist monks accused of leading a mob that assaulted three female Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2013. According to civil society groups and NGOs, highly visible social media campaigns targeting religious minorities continued to fuel hatred and incite violence. According to Human Rights Watch, in April and May, there were calls on social media to boycott Muslim businesses and false allegations of Muslims spreading COVID-19 deliberately, which the authorities did not contest. Buddhist nationalist groups such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) continued to use social media to promote what it called the supremacy of the ethnic Sinhalese Buddhist majority and vilify religious and ethnic minorities.
U.S. embassy officials repeatedly urged senior government officials and political leaders, including the President and Prime Minister, to defend religious minorities and protect religious freedom for all, emphasizing the importance of religious minorities in the national reconciliation process. Embassy personnel met often with religious and civic leaders to foster interfaith dialogue and respect for the right of religious minorities. The U.S. government funded multiple foreign assistance programs designed to build on global best practices in interfaith and interreligious cooperation, dialogue, and confidence building.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 22.7 million (midyear 2020 estimate). The 2012 national census lists the population as 70.2 percent Buddhist, 12.6 percent Hindu, 9.7 percent Muslim, and 7.4 percent Christian. According to census data, the Theravada Buddhist community, which comprises nearly all the country’s Buddhists, is a majority in the Central, North-Central, Northwestern, Sabaragamuwa, Southern, Uva, and Western Provinces.
Most Sinhalese are Buddhist. Tamils, mainly Hindu with a significant Christian minority, constitute the majority in the Northern Province and represent the second largest group, after Muslims, in the Eastern Province. Most Muslims self-identify as a separate ethnic group, rather than as Tamil or Sinhalese, but are Tamil-speaking. Tamils of Indian origin, who are mostly Hindu, have a large presence in the Central, Sabaragamuwa, and Uva Provinces. Muslims form a plurality in the Eastern Province, and there are sizable Muslim populations in the Central, North-Central, Northwestern, Sabaragamuwa, Uva, and Western Provinces. Christians reside throughout the country but have a larger presence in the Eastern, Northern, Northwestern, and Western Provinces, and a smaller presence in Sabaragamuwa and Uva Provinces.
Most Muslims are Sunni, with small Sufi, Ahmadi, and Shia, including Dawoodi Bohra, minorities. According to government statistics, an estimated 81 percent of Christians are Roman Catholic. Other Christian groups include the Church of Ceylon (Anglicans), the Dutch Reformed Church, Methodists, Baptists, Assembly of God, Pentecostals, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Christian evangelical and nondenominational Protestant groups have grown in recent years, although there are no reliable estimates of their numbers. According to the government, membership remains low compared with the larger Christian community. There is a small Jewish population living in different parts of the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
According to the constitution, every person is “entitled to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” including the freedom to choose a religion. The constitution gives citizens the right to manifest their religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, or teaching, both in public and in private. The constitution accords Buddhism the “foremost place” among the country’s religious faiths and requires the government to protect it, although it does not recognize it as the state religion. According to a 2003 Supreme Court ruling, the state is constitutionally required to protect only Buddhism, and other religions do not have the same right to state protection. The same ruling also holds that no fundamental right to proselytize exists or is protected under the constitution. In 2017, the Supreme Court determined the right to propagate one’s religion is not protected by the constitution.
The law recognizes four religions: Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity. There is no registration requirement for central religious bodies of these four groups. New religious groups, including groups affiliated with the four recognized religions, must register with the government to obtain approval to construct new places of worship, sponsor religious worker (missionary) visas/immigration permits, operate schools, and apply for subsidies for religious education. Religious organizations may also seek incorporation by an act of parliament, which requires a simple majority and affords religious groups state recognition.
The government adheres to a 2008 ministerial circular, introduced by the Ministry of Buddha Sasana, Religious, and Cultural Affairs (Ministry of Buddha Sasana), the cabinet ministry responsible for oversight of what the constitution describes as the country’s foremost religion, Theravada Buddhism, requiring all groups, regardless of their religion, to receive permission from the ministry to register and construct new places of worship. A 2017 Supreme Court ruling upholds the registration requirements. In 2018, the Ministry of Buddha Sasana ruled that the 2008 circular on registration and construction of religious facilities only applied to Buddhist religious sites.
Starting in 2020, specific noncabinet departments under the Ministry of Buddha Sasana are responsible for addressing the concerns of each major religious community. The Prime Minister heads this ministry. Previously, individual cabinet ministries handled religious affairs with each of the four recognized religions.
Religion is a compulsory subject at the primary and secondary levels in public and private schools. Parents may elect to have their children study Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, or Christianity, provided enough demand (at least 15 students) exists within the school for the chosen subject. Students may not opt out of religious instruction even if instruction in their religion of choice is not available, or if they do not choose any religion. All schools teaching the Sri Lankan Ordinary Level syllabus, including private schools founded by religious organizations, must use the Ministry of Education curriculum on religion, which covers the four main religions and is compulsory for the General Certificate Education Ordinary Level exams (equivalent to U.S. grade 10). International schools not following the Sri Lankan Ordinary Level syllabus are not required to teach religious studies.
Matters related to family law, including divorce, child custody, and property inheritance, are adjudicated either under customary law of the ethnic or religious group in question or under the country’s civil law. According to the 1951 Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, Islamic personal law governs marriages and divorces of Muslims, while civil law applies to most property rights. In the Northern Province, civil law governs marriages, while the Thesawalamai (Tamil customary law) often governs the division of property. For some Sinhalese, Kandyan personal law (based on the traditions of the Sinhalese Kandyan kingdom that proceeded British colonial rule) governs civil matters, such as inheritance issues, and works within the caste system. Civil law governs most marriages of Sinhalese and Tamils of various religions, including mixed marriages or those of individuals who state no religious affiliation. Religious community members report practices vary by region, and numerous exceptions exist.
The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act of 1951 does not stipulate a minimum age for marriage, permitting Islamic religious court judges to allow children as young as 12 to be married. Written consent from the bride is not required. The religious marriage ceremony and marriage registration do not have to take place concurrently, which can complicate divorce and child support cases.
There is no national law regulating ritual animal sacrifice, but there are laws prohibiting animal cruelty that are used to prevent religious ceremonies involving animal sacrifice.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The country’s ICCPR Act, which is designed to incorporate the international covenant into domestic law, criminalizes propagating or advocating religious or racial hatred. Punishment ranges from fines to up to 10 years’ imprisonment.
In his February 24 report to the UN Human Rights Council, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Shaheed said that during his 2019 visit to Sri Lanka, he observed that “significant gaps exist, particularly in upholding accountability and access to justice as well as ensuring non-recurrence of human rights violations.” He said that, despite Sri Lanka’s civil war ending over a decade ago, “Reverberations of the ethnic conflict remain apparent in the political, social and economic life of the country and impact the enjoyment of human rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief.” Shaheed stated that religious minorities also faced restrictions in the manifestation of their religion or belief, such as proselytization, conversion, and building of places of worship in addition to numerous incidents of violent attacks. He noted the importance of analyzing and identifying the root causes of religious intolerance and tensions that lead to violations of freedom of religion or belief to better address these challenges.
NCEASL said evangelical Christian groups continued to report that police and local government officials were complicit in the harassment of religious minorities and their places of worship. Christian groups said officials and police often sided with the religious majority. NCEASL said police often attempted to coerce Christians into signing statements absolving those harassing them and accused them of breaching the peace if they filed complaints about police behavior.
According to police, 2,299 individuals were arrested in the aftermath of the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks that targeted Christian churches and luxury hotels, killing 268 persons, including five U.S. citizens, and injuring more than 500. As of December, the government’s investigation continued and 135 suspects remained in custody, including three men charged by the United States with providing material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization (ISIS). Hejaaz Hizbullah, a Muslim lawyer, was arrested in April under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The government publicly stated that Hizbullah was arrested because of his interactions with the bombers and their family, though he was never charged. He was being held without bail at year’s end. Civil society regularly engaged the international community on his behalf and NGOs and diplomatic missions called upon the government to grant Hizbullah due process under the law.
According to NCEASL, on September 17, a plainclothes officer from the Criminal Investigation Department attached to the Gampola police station visited the Foursquare Church in Nawalapitiya, Kandy District, and questioned the pastor regarding the registration status, number of congregants, and locations of all churches in the fellowship. He told the pastor that he collected details in accordance with an unspecified government circular.
According to Christian, Hindu, and Muslim civil society groups, incidents of increased monitoring often occurred in concert with harassment by local Buddhist monks and Buddhist nationalist organizations.
According to members of Christian groups, local authorities sometimes demanded their groups stop worship activities or relocate their places of worship outside the local jurisdiction, ostensibly to maintain community peace. Local police and government officials reportedly continued to cite a government circular, revoked by the Ministry of Buddha Sasana in 2012, requiring places of worship to obtain approval to conduct religious activities. Police also reportedly cited a 2008 circular on the construction of religious facilities when they prohibited, impeded, or closed Christian and Muslim services and places of worship. According to some legal experts, however, there was no explicit basis in national law for such a requirement.
According to NCEASL, on January 18, a mob of approximately 150 individuals arrived at the King of Kings Gospel Church in Kalawanchikudy and demanded that the pastor stop conducting his religious worship activities in the village and close the church. The mob included members of the local government and a Hindu priest. The pastor went to the Kalwanchikudy Police Station on January 25 for an inquiry, where the senior officer there spoke in favor of the pastor, defending his religious rights and reiterating his freedom to conduct his religious activities. The senior officer further warned the others against harassing the pastor and said that he would place them all under arrest if they continued to cause trouble in the future.
On February 10, according to NCEASL, the pastor and nine congregants of Good Shepherd Church at Sri Nissankamallapura met with local police, government officials and 12 Buddhist monks. The government officials and the monks demanded that the pastor stop religious activities immediately, reportedly saying Christians would not be tolerated in the village. The pastor refused and challenged them to take legal action. On February 16, a group led by a Buddhist monk went to the church and admonished the pastor for not stopping his religious activities as instructed. At the pastor’s request, local police personnel provided protection to the church. When the pastor went to lodge a complaint against the monks, however, a police headquarters inspector instructed him to sign a statement affirming that he had breached the peace. When the pastor refused, the inspector threatened to place him under arrest. Police accused the pastor of disturbing the peace. His case was taken before the Manampitiya Magistrates Court on February 17 and postponed until March 16. The magistrate ordered the pastor not to invite anyone to participate in religious activities at his premises for one month and imposed a bail bond of 500,000 rupees ($2,700) if he violated the order.
Writer Shakthika Sathkumara faced a criminal hearing on September 22 for charges stemming from his 2019 publication of a short story that a group of Buddhist monks said offended Buddhism. The story referred to homosexuality and child abuse at a Buddhist temple. The monks filed charges against Sathkumara under the ICCPR Act, accusing him of propagating religious hatred. He was detained four months, released in August 2019, and filed a fundamental rights petition in October 2019 challenging the constitutionality of his arrest. At his September hearing, the court postponed his case to February 2021, pending the Attorney General’s instructions on whether to file indictments.
According to Amnesty International, on April 9, police arrested Ramzy Razeek for violating the ICCPR Act by inciting religious hatred. The charge was based on his April 2 Facebook post calling for an “ideological jihad” through social and mainstream media “to help people understand the truth” in the context of rising “hate propagated against Muslims” during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Razeek’s lawyers, in August, the Supreme Court agreed to hear his petition challenging the constitutionality of his arrest, but no date had been set for a hearing by the end of the year. On September 17, the Colombo High Court granted him bail on medical grounds.
On October 18, newspapers reported that police arrested a woman on charges of “spreading hate” between Buddhists and Catholics after she posted a video criticizing Catholic Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo. The status of her case was unknown at year’s end.
On October 21, the Colombo High Court granted bail to BBS general secretary Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, who was charged with denigrating the religious beliefs of Muslims following statements he made in 2016 at the Kuragala Raja Maha Vihara Temple. Further proceedings of the trial, set for November 24, were postponed, and Gnanasara Thero remained free on bail at year’s end.
On August 18, the Mahiyanganaya Magistrate Court dismissed a 2019 case against a woman for wearing clothing decorated with the logo of a ship’s wheel, described as a Buddhist dharma chakra. She had been charged under the ICCPR Act for propagating religious hatred.
During the year, there were no prosecutions for the May 2019 anti-Muslim violence that led to the death of one Muslim and attacks on mosques and Muslim-owned homes and businesses. By year’s end, the government had not fully compensated owners for property damage they sustained during the violence across Northwestern Province.
According to a NCEASL report, on February 23, while a worship service was underway at Bethany Church in Tangalle, a group of approximately 100 individuals, including one Buddhist monk, forcibly entered the premises and questioned the legality of the place of worship. The group threatened the Christians, and one individual grabbed the pastor by his throat. They demanded that the Christians leave the village and never return and threw stones at the building, damaging the roof. Police arrived and insisted that the pastor and Christian congregants leave the church before dispersing the mob. The police inspector in charge said he had warned the pastor against conducting worship activities and accused him of breaching the peace. In response, the pastor said it was the mob who had breached the peace and that he had the right to conduct worship there. NCEASL said there were no arrests in this case.
Despite a public awareness campaign by the Department of Christian Religious Affairs underway since 2016 to encourage local congregations of nondenominational groups to register as religious organizations, the government had not registered any new groups by year’s end. According to some nondenominational groups, government officials threatened them with legal action if they did not register, but the process dragged on indefinitely if they tried to register. Instead, unregistered Christian groups continued to incorporate as commercial trusts, legal societies, or NGOs to engage in financial transactions, open bank accounts, and hold property. Without formal government recognition through the registration process, however, nondenominational churches said they could not sponsor religious worker visas for visiting clergy and faced restrictions on holding meetings or constructing new places of worship.
According to Christian groups, they experienced two major difficulties in complying with local officials’ registration requirements. First, rural congregations often could not obtain deeds to land due to the degradation of hard-copy Land Registry documentation and incomplete land surveys. Second, without the consent of the local community or the local Buddhist temple, local councils often opted not to approve the construction of new religious buildings. Church leaders said they repeatedly appealed to local government officials and the ministry responsible for religious affairs for assistance, with limited success.
On June 1, President Rajapaksa issued an official notification in the government gazette that created a 12-member Presidential Task Force for Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province composed exclusively of Sinhalese Buddhists and headed by Secretary of Defense Kamal Gunaratne. The task force’s mandate was to conduct archaeological site surveys in the heavily Tamil and Muslim Eastern Province, and to recommend measures to preserve religious heritage. The task force included six Buddhist monks but no representatives from other religious communities, despite the multiethnic nature of the province. On August 19, President Rajapaksa added four more monks to the task force, including two general secretaries of the Asgiriya and Malwatte chapters, the two main Buddhist sects in the nation, despite civil society and political leaders’ repeated calls for the inclusion of minority representatives.
Media reported that in June, an archeological task force surveyed 40 acres around the Muhudu Maha Viharaya in Pottuvil, Ampara District and evicted approximately 400 Muslim residents from land their families had inhabited since the colonial era. Tamil activists reported that in September, a Buddhist monk from Arisimalai, who was a member of the task force, threatened a group of Tamil farmers in the Thiriyai area in the Kuchchaveli Divisional Secretary’s Division in the Trincomalee District and prevented them from engaging in cultivation of more than 1,000 acres, including 400 acres without private deeds or government permits that had been cultivated by farmers for many decades. According to lawyers involved in the cases, by the end of the year, more than 40 Tamil and Muslim farmers had filed cases against the expulsions from their traditional lands. All cases remained pending at year’s end.
On August 20, presenting the government’s policy speech at the inaugural session of parliament, President Rajapaksa pledged to “protect and nurture the Buddha Sasana” and explained that he had established an advisory council of leading Buddhist monks to seek advice on governance. He also highlighted the Presidential Task Force for Archaeological Heritage Management, saying that it had been established to protect places of archaeological importance and to preserve the Buddhist heritage. He said that by “ensuring priority for Buddhism… the freedom of any citizen to practice the religion of his or her choice is better secured.” Tamil and Muslim activists in the Eastern Province predicted that the Task Force for Archaeological Heritage Management would use its authority to claim locations that possess ancient Buddhist relics as a pretext to force minorities off their lands.
Civil society groups and local politicians continued to state the military sometimes acted outside its official capacity and aided in the construction of Buddhist shrines in predominantly Hindu and Muslim areas, although there were few reports of this practice during the year due to movement restrictions imposed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Reports published by various civil society groups indicated security forces involved in constructing Buddhist religious sites continued to cite archeological links in places where there were no Buddhist populations.
In January, the army completed construction of a Buddhist vihara (shrine) in Valikamam North on privately owned land occupied by the army and designated as a “high security zone” during the war. Journalists reported that residents lodged complaints with the Valikamam North divisional council regarding construction of the vihara, but the council did not have jurisdiction over military-controlled lands.
On March 8, student groups reported that a Buddhist vihara had been dedicated on Jaffna University’s Killinochchi Campus, whose student body is mostly Hindu. Students protested the rushed manner in which the vihara was constructed, in contrast with a Hindu temple and Christian church on the university grounds that had been abandoned with no renovations planned.
On July 10, newspapers reported that Buddhist monk Ellawala Medhananda, a member of the Presidential Task Force for Archaeological Heritage Management, said that up to 2,000 sites in the Eastern Province would be subject to examination, including in forests across Ampara, Batticaloa and Trincomalee. He specifically noted that if Buddhist artifacts were found at the historic Koneswaram Hindu Temple, they should be protected. Civil society groups said the effort was a Sinhala Buddhist land grab in the historically Tamil and Muslim province.
On October 9, the Vavuniya Magistrate Court granted bail to the administrators of the ancient Hindu Vedukkunari Hill Temple after local police and Archeology Department officials filed a case against them for damaging the temple, which had been declared a Buddhist archaeological site, by holding a Hindu festival there in September. At a November 6 hearing, the case was postponed until 2021. However, at the request of the lawyer representing the Archaeology Department and police, the court rescheduled the hearing to December 11. Because the temple administration was not aware of the change of date and missed the hearing, the magistrate revoked bail and issued an arrest warrant for the administrators of the temple. At year’s end, temple administrators remained at large, despite the arrest warrant.
Also in October, the mostly Hindu residents of Delft Island in Jaffna protested an effort of Jaffna-based Buddhist monks and Archaeology Department officials, who said that a Vedi Arasan fortress in Delft belonged historically to a Tamil Buddhist king. Monks also surveyed the area with the Archaeology Department using a drone camera.
According to press reports, on September 24, at the request of Buddhist monk Thilakawansa Nayaka, the Archaeology Department seized 358 acres of land between Panikkanvayal and Thennamaravadi in Trincomalee, including fields belonging to Tamil farmers. The farmers reported that Civil Defense Force guards posted at the site prevented them from cultivating their land and that monks had begun to build a Buddhist shrine at the site to prevent any alternative use for the land.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses community said it continued to have difficulty obtaining approval to build houses of worship. Local government officials cited the 2008 circular and forwarded all new Kingdom Hall construction applications to the Ministry of Buddha Sasana, Department of Christian Affairs. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, during the year, the ministry again did not issue any approvals for building applications. Older applications, such as those submitted in 2015 to build houses of worship in Pugoda and Nattandiya, remained pending at year’s end.
During a July 24 meeting with the Buddhist Advisory Council, President Rajapaksa appointed a committee of Maha Sangha (senior Buddhist clergy) to study the Antiquities Ordinance and recommend amendments to strengthen the preservation of antiquities and national heritage. During this meeting, the Maha Sangha requested the President transfer cases relating to artifacts and historic places in the predominantly Hindu and Muslim Northern and Eastern Provinces to courts in Colombo.
On September 28, the cabinet announced it would amend national and local legislation to ban cattle slaughter, saying that such a ban would help the dairy industry and save money used to purchase imported milk powder, but by year’s end, the government had taken no action to introduce the ban for consideration by parliament.
In March, the MOH made cremation compulsory for all COVID-19 victims, thereby denying Muslims who died from the virus the Islamic tradition of burying the dead. International media reported that Muslims who had lost relatives due to COVID-19 described a traumatic rush by police and health authorities to cremate the bodies of their loved ones. Many family members said they were not provided a copy of the test results showing that their loved ones had tested positive, and that hospital officials refused their pleas to conduct second tests. Human rights activist Shreen Shahor told The Guardian, “The way (the government) is treating the Muslim community during this pandemic is clear-cut racism. The community is being forced to abandon their own dead in order to protect (others’) beliefs and traditions. There is not even a scientific justification for them being denied dignity in death.”
On April 8, four UN special rapporteurs, including the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief, in addition to the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka (MCSL), wrote President Rajapaksa requesting the government reconsider its policy, in light of WHO COVID-19 guidelines that permitted either burial or cremation. The UN letter also stated that MOH guidelines were not sensitive to the religious and cultural practices of different communities. Similarly, the MCSL published a letter to the President on April 8 that highlighted WHO guidelines permitting burial. “Over 182 countries…have permitted (relatives) to bury or cremate the dead bodies of those infected with COVID-19,” MCSL stated. Also in April, the Government Medical Officers Association published a letter calling for the President to convene a panel of experts to examine the issue. On April 11, the MOH issued revised guidelines with no further explanation, reiterating that cremation was mandatory for COVID-19 victims of all faiths. In May, the two major Muslim political parties, the SLMC and the ACMC, as well as several civil society activists, filed petitions with the Supreme Court challenging the government’s COVID-19 cremation policy. By year’s end, the court had not heard the petitions to determine if the cases had standing to proceed. In a November 4 open letter, the Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation expressed deep concerns about the country’s policy of mandatory cremation for COVID-19 victims.
In November, Health Minister Wanniarachchi informed parliament that the government had appointed a committee to investigate the burial issue. Media reports that month said that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa had agreed to allow Muslim burials for COVID-19-related deaths and had asked health authorities to identify appropriate areas to use. In December, however, the Supreme Court refused to hear a petition against the mandatory cremation practice, separate from the SLMC and ACMC petition, filed by 11 Muslim and Christian activists. The petitioners said the practice violated their freedom of religion and their fundamental rights under the constitution. At year’s end, the government’s policy of mandatory cremation for all COVID-19 victims remained in force.
Although religious education remained compulsory in state-funded schools, not all schools had sufficient resources to teach all four recognized religions, and according to civil society groups, some students were required to study religions other than their own. Government schools frequently experienced a shortage of teachers, sometimes requiring available teachers to teach the curriculum of a faith different from their own.
Religious schools continued to receive state funding for facilities and personnel and to fall under the purview of the central government and/or the provincial ministry of education. The National Christian Council of Sri Lanka reported several dozen cases of schools refusing students admission on religious grounds during the year, even though the law required government and private schools receiving government funding, some religiously affiliated, to accept students of all faiths.
Religious rights advocates said that across all religious groups, traditional leaders charged with adjudication of religious law were poorly or completely untrained and issued inconsistent or arbitrary judgments.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Because religion, language, and ethnicity are closely linked, it was difficult to categorize most incidents of harassment or discrimination as being solely based on religious identity.
According to civil society groups, social media campaigns targeting religious minorities fueled hatred. According to press reports and civil society, Buddhist nationalist groups such as the BBS continued to promote the supremacy of the ethnic Sinhalese Buddhist majority and denigrated religious and ethnic minorities, especially in social media. These groups said authorities did not act against those inciting hatred against the Muslim and Tamil community.
According to an NGO report examining online hate speech between March and June, 58 percent of online hate speech in all national languages (Sinhala, Tamil, and English) attacked Muslims or Islam on a variety of grounds, 30 percent targeted Christians, and less than 5 percent attacked Tamils or Hinduism. Of the Sinhala-language posts surveyed, 79 percent attacked Muslims or Islam. Of the Tamil-language posts, 46 percent attacked Christians of Tamil ethnicity and 35 percent attacked Muslims or Islam.
At a hearing in January, 76 medical staff submitted statements claiming knowledge of forced sterilizations of Sinhala women carried out by Muslim doctor Siyabdeen Shafi over several years. A medical expert review of the evidence for the sterilization claims, ordered in 2019, remained pending. Shafi was arrested for suspicious accumulation of wealth and released in 2019. He was investigated further after a social media campaign accused him of the sterilizations. He was not charged with any crimes, however. At the request of police, a magistrate will continue the case until March 2021.
Muslim civil society activists described a “vast outpouring” of anti-Muslim hate speech on social media and in parts of the broadcast and print media related to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Human Rights Watch, in April and May, there were calls on social media to boycott Muslim businesses and false allegations of Muslims spreading COVID-19 deliberately that authorities did not adequately refute. On April 12, in a letter addressed to the acting inspector general of police, several Muslim groups, including the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka and the Colombo District Mosques’ Federation, sought investigations into “the continued hate-mongering against the Muslim community” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On November 10, commenting on reports that the government was considering allowing the burial of Muslim COVID-19 victims, media reported BBS leader Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero blamed “Wahhabi groups infiltrating society” for the political debate surrounding the issue.
NCEASL documented 50 cases of attacks on churches, intimidation of and violence against pastors and their congregations, and obstruction of worship services during the year, compared with 94 cases in 2019. Human rights activists attributed the lower number of incidents to pandemic-related lockdowns and prohibitions on public gatherings.
According to NCEASL, on January 19, congregants of an Assemblies of God church in Divulapitiya, Gampaha District were accosted on their way to Sunday service by 40 persons led by eight Buddhist monks who verbally abused them with obscene language and took their photographs. The monks also assaulted one female congregant physically. When the congregants complained, police officers defused the situation but made no arrests, and the senior officer present admonished the pastor for continuing her worship activities. The pastor lodged a complaint at the Divulapitiya Police Station. On the same day, some individuals threw stones at the church, targeting the closed-circuit television cameras. There was no follow-up on this case by year’s end.
According to NCEASL, on February 2, a Christian worship service in Inhala Yakkure in Polonanaruwa District was disrupted by a mob of approximately 150 individuals led by four Buddhist monks. The crowd demanded an end to the service and threatened violence if it continued. Police were called and allowed the pastor to conclude the service. Afterwards, however, the Buddhist monks attempted to assault the pastor, and were stopped by the police. The monks said that the pastor needed to register his place of worship with the proper authorities and that the activities at the church were illegal. Later that day, the pastor, accompanied by his wife, son, and a few others, visited the village of a family of parishioners who had been previously threatened by the monks. As they were leaving their vehicles, they were reportedly accosted by a second group of approximately 50 individuals, including three Buddhist monks, who blocked the road with logs and physically assaulted the pastor’s son and the other Christians. On February 3, five persons were detained by police in connection with the incident, but not the monks involved. No charges were filed in the case.
Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to report incidents of discrimination and abuse. On March 17, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that Angmaduwe Vimala Himi, chief monk of the Weralugahamulla Temple, with a group of followers, approached four female Jehovah’s Witnesses. The monk and his followers verbally abused the women and beat them with a cane. They seized religious literature from one of the women and burned it, while issuing threats to all of them against returning, saying they would “face worse.” One of the women was hospitalized after the attack. On the same day, the same monk and a group of his followers confronted another group of Jehovah’s Witnesses, confiscated their literature, and assaulted them, resulting in the hospitalization of two. Jehovah Witnesses filed complaints in both instances, which remained pending at year’s end.
On October 23, police reported that the attorney general would be filing a complaint against Buddhist monks accused of leading a mob that assaulted three female Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2013. The women had been tied to a tree by the mob, struck, and verbally assaulted. When the incident was first reported to police, the mob stormed the local police station and assaulted the officers there. In the years since the attack, the victims continued to press police to take action, and the monks involved were identified.
On September 7, the case of a February 2019 assault on four Jehovah’s Witnesses in Adikarimulla, Divulapitiya, was brought before the Minuwangoda magistrate, who issued warrants for the two men accused of the attack. They remained at large at year’s end. Jehovah’s Witnesses said they viewed the action by the magistrate as a positive development but said the delays in getting trials started and heard to completion denied many Jehovah’s Witnesses access to justice. Multiple other cases from previous years involving assaults on Jehovah’s Witnesses remained pending at year’s end.
According to representatives of a Sufi Muslim community of approximately 10,000 based in the Eastern Province town of Kathankudy, there were no incidents against them during the year. They said they felt secure, since public attention on Sufi relations with conservative Wahhabi-inspired Sunni Muslims had waned since the Easter Sunday bombing, and government scrutiny of the Wahhabis had increased.
Civil society organizations continued efforts to strengthen the ability of religious and community leaders to lead peacebuilding activities through district-level interreligious reconciliation committees consisting of religious and civic leaders and laypersons from different faith traditions and ethnicities. The NGO National Peace Council of Sri Lanka created the committees in 2010 following the end of the civil war between the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the primarily Hindu and Christian Tamil minority.
According to NCEASL, the number of Christian groups worshipping in “house churches” continued to grow.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and embassy officers emphasized the need for respect for and inclusion of ethnic and religious minorities as part of the postconflict reconciliation process, during meetings with the President, Prime Minister, cabinet ministers, and other officials holding religious portfolios. During his October 28 visit to Sri Lanka, the Secretary of State laid a wreath at the Catholic Shrine of St. Anthony, one of the sites of the 2019 Easter Sunday suicide bombings.
Embassy and visiting Department of State officials met with government officials to express concern about harassment of and government and societal discrimination against members of religious minority groups and to urge the government to reverse the policy mandating cremation for victims of COVID-19.
The Ambassador promoted religious freedom through private diplomatic advocacy and in public statements and speeches, including her January 16 statement for world Religious Freedom Day in which she highlighted how the United States and Sri Lanka shared “a long tradition of religious liberty and diversity.” She added, “The freedom to profess one’s own faith is innate to the dignity of every person,” and, “We will continue to advocate for the right to worship freely and protect those persecuted for their faith.” In a June 11 tweet, the Ambassador encouraged the government to adhere to its commitments under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), noting that the UDHR recognizes that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion and that the United States adopted the UDHR in 1948 and Sri Lanka in 1955. The Ambassador urged Sri Lankans to work with the United States to “ensure this right is a reality.” In a November 10 speech at the Pathfinder Foundation Indian Ocean Security Conference, the Ambassador highlighted that the United States is a champion for “human rights, religious freedom, and democratic ideals, as enshrined in international instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” and she urged “all nations to join us in upholding these commitments.”
Embassy and visiting Department of State officials met with Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu civil society and religious leaders to understand the views of the communities they represent, the challenges they faced, including government and societal discrimination and the COVID-19 cremation policy, and to identify ways their communities could help diffuse ethnic tensions.
Throughout the year, the Ambassador offered public greetings, including on social media, and participated in person or virtually in celebrations of the country’s many religious holidays, including Thai Pongal in January, Eid al-Fitr in May, Deepavali in November, and Hanukkah and Christmas in December.
The embassy supported multiple reconciliation projects that identified and resolved local grievances, built empathy and understanding among religious groups, and supported government reconciliation efforts. The embassy led ongoing tolerance and unity programs in cultural centers. Embassy representatives supported the work of civil society organizations in strengthening the capacity of religious and community leaders by fostering peacebuilding activities through district-level interreligious reconciliation committees. Through the National Peace Council, the U.S. government funded multiple foreign assistance programs designed to build on global best practices in interfaith cooperation, dialogue, and confidence building.